Sequential Phrases: A Simple, Primitive, Powerful Grammar for Writing
This book is about the hidden grammar of English -- and how to write with it.
Let me be logical for a moment. The development of a language follows three steps. First is the construction of words. Without meaningful words, we have nothing:
Puh nius cerh ciho
You knew that. With only meaningful words, simple ideas can be communicated, but not anything mildly complicated:
So, the second step of a language is conventions for constructing phrases from words.
dog brown quick lazy jumped fox over
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
You knew that too. The third step of a language is conventions for connecting those phrases. Without it . . . well, actually, a lot can be communicated without that third step:
Ladies and gentlemen, that's the hidden grammar of English. I call it Sequential Phrase Grammar, SePG for short. It's just phrases, one after another, with no rules for connecting them. SePG has to exist -- how can the absence of something not exist? And you can see that it's understandable.
He has a crush on me?
I just wanted someone to like me
I couldn't even imagine that.
Since at least Hemingway, writers have been using SePG to break the known rules of grammar,
To be grammatical, that needs a comma before and; you probably didn't even notice its absence. A beautiful, modern sentence that isn't close to the known rules of English:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea)
This book is directed towards writers, but it's a grammar book too. The grammar of modern writing seems like chaotic rule-breaking, but SePG accounts for everything. If you could read only three books about the grammar of English writing, this should be one of them.
My customers are in sweats and heavy sweaters, their hair unbrushed, lazy Saturday, the week peeling off of them. (How Lucky You Are, Lewis, page 33)
With this book, you can intentionally write using SePG, follow the underlying principles, and know your options. SePG is perfectly understandable. For example:
I'm walking in a crowd in the school hallway, a hand rubs my butt, someone laughs. I turn around to see who did it, all the guys are smirking, all the girls are looking at me with contempt, everyone thinks I deserved that, I don't know who did it, someone behind me whispers trash, I whirl around, I can't tell who said that either.
SePG has a subtle but huge flexibility, making it much more powerful than I expected. And it's probably the grammar of choice for action (and sex) scenes. I was trying to help the reader feel the character's fear:
Someone with a gun. Down the far end of the hallway, to my left. What? Who? I'm frozen -- wasting a second. CRACK! a bullet chips the wall near me and ricochets down the hallway.
Back to that third step. English has many complicated rules for connecting phrases. I will call that English grammar, or just EG. In my opinion, EG is the go-to grammar for complicated ideas in nonfiction.
My body JOLTS into motion, running away! away! away! A second bullet CRACKLES off the wall to my right, shocking me, I trip and almost fall, bouncing clumsily against the left wall. Run! run! until I reach the end of the hall. Duck around the corner.
Fiction? This book tours the dark side of EG. First, understandability. Sentences that follow SePG are easy to understand. Duh, that makes sense, SePG is simple and primitive. Sentences not following SePG -- sentences requiring the reader to know and apply the rules of EG -- are more difficult to understand. They can even be impossible:
The book that the girl who the boy who a father scolded kissed liked ended well.
Of course no one writes like that. Hopefully no one writes like Hawthorne, whose grammatically flawless sentences stand at the pinnacle of EG.
It has been related how, in the crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne's ignominious exposure, stood a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as a type of sin before the people. (Chapter 9, The Scarlet Letter).
To be easy to understand, writers since at least Dickens have been learning to write SePG-compatible sentences. I suspect some modern writers would rather break the rules of EG than the principles of SePG:
The body was on its back, had an arm in a sling, and a hole in its head. (Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two, page 162)
The ultimate in understandability would be grammatical and follow SePG. It would also look ordinary:
I've been neglected abandoned ostracized and dragged from my home. I've been poked prodded tested and thrown in a cell. (Shatter Me, Mafi, page 70)
I shake my head and try not to smile. They'll take it as a weakness and keep pushing. (The Tyrant's Daughter, Carleson page 62).
The second problem for EG is power -- the rules of EG are too limiting. Hemingway wanted the effect of not having a comma before the and. That wasn't a mistake, that's how he wrote his whole book.
Sometimes EG is is just wrong. The following comma before because is ungrammatical, but it communicates exactly what Green meant:
... and then all of them would touch the coffin instead of touching him, because no one wants to touch the dead. (The Fault in Our Stars, Green, page 268)
So writers have powerful motivation to break the rules of EG; SePG is their means and opportunity. They have been trying to use SePG for the last 150 years, albeit hampered by EG (and that no one has mentioned the existence of SePG).
I feel it like a magnetic force, a malevolent presence lurking in the dark behind the wall, close enough that I can almost smell it, an acrid edge, a dirty electrical odor like something old shorting out. What people smell when they're about to have a seizure but I'm imagining it. (Cornwell, Dust, page 56)
Okay, that probably breaks the rules of SePG twice. Cornwell did not have this book to guide her; you do. But that passage shows no intention to write EG -- it's a sequence of phrases. And powerful.
Look, I get it -- there's no Atlantis, no Holy Grail, no perpetual motion machine, and you're probably thinking there can't be a whole grammar of English that no one has ever mentioned. Statistically unlikely, right?
But from my perspective, I am telling you that the world is round and revolves around the sun. Everything I have said (and will say) is logical, everything has evidence. I'm not talking about things in outer space, and you don't need a high-energy particle accelerator to test my claims. I'm talking about the books you read; I'm talking about what you can write.
So you don't need to trust me on anything. I don't even want you to trust me, I want you to think about my claims and test everything. Except . . . if you don't read the next chapter, you're making a big mistake.