My Discovery of SePG
The following passage
has a paradox. The grammar of the second sentence is complicated. But
the sentence itself is not that difficult to understand (except for
the old-fashioned words).
had his slippers on, and a loose bedgown, and his throat was bare for
his greater ease. He had that rather wild, strained, seared marking
about the eyes, which may be observed in all free livers of his
class, from the portrait of Jeffries downward, and which can be
traced, under various disguises of Art, through the portraits of
every Drinking Age. (Great
Dickens, page 90 of paperback)
you focus hard on that second sentence, you might
fully understand the grammar. I do concede that. But if you were
actually reading the whole book, each sentence would tire you, and
sooner or later (probably sooner) you'd give up on working hard to
understanding the grammar. And then the full grammar would be gone.
(Having read this far,
you are probably a lot better at grammar than most readers. So you
can't use your own grammar abilities to predict the experience of an
EG has assigned too
many roles to the comma. Sometimes you have to understand the grammar
of the sentence before you
can know what the comma does. But when their full grammatical
role is obscured, commas still have a primitive role -- they separate
things. So, in the absence of hard work or exceptional skill, that
sentence by Dickens "degenerates" into just sequence of
phrases, separated by commas.
But instead of being
confusing, Dickens makes sense as just a sequence of phrases. It's as
if a second grammar processor resides in everyone's brain, one that
can process an unconnected sequence of phrases. And Dickens mostly
wrote so that his sentences could be understood that way (though you
will learn to do better).
I don't see how the
first sentence fits EG either. Meanwhile, it too is easily understood
as a sequence of phrases.
Contrast Dickens to
truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon
the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his
volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him,
better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. (The
Scarlet Letter, start)
You cannot read this as
an unconnected sequence of phrases. If you try, a lot of the phrases
won't make sense; it certainly wasn't meant to be read that way.
Instead, you have to connect and organize the phrases for them to
make sense, using the rules of EG.
Which is to say, to
understand that sentence you have to grasp its full grammatical
structure. If you give up on understanding Hawthorne's grammar, you
got nothin'. Put less evocatively, if you are confused about the
grammar, you will be missing what Hawthorne hoped and expected you
Hawthorne gave you as
much help as he could, but he expected you to know and apply EG.
However, because this is a long, complicated sentence, understanding
the grammar is difficult. So, Hawthorne's grammatically-perfect
sentences are challenging to read.
writing some 30 years after Hawthorne, had found a style of writing
that allowed readers to understand long sentences without
understanding the underlying grammar. That was an amazing achievement
and part of Dickens' success in writing for the masses.
Or someone else found
it and Dickens then copied it, or improved on it, or popularized it
-- it's impossible for me to go back and find out who exactly did
what. In any case, Dickens is my marker -- some 30 years after
Hawthorne, Dickens had a way of writing that did not require a firm
understanding of grammar but made sense when it degenerated into a
sequence of phrases. Writing had advanced. Or regressed, depending on
your affection for EG.
What had I accomplished
with my realization about Dickens? People can understand a sequence
of phrases without understanding the EG. When they did that, the
commas were just separators.
However, all I really
had was an understanding of an archaic writing style. I was thrilled,
true, but I'm easily thrilled by grammar stuff. SePG wasn't a big
Brown and Rollins
weeks after my insight about Dickens, I idly wondered what would
happen if SePG was used for short sentences. It was just an idea, and
I didn't expect it to lead anywhere. After all, I thought, why would
SePG be needed for short sentences?
Well . . .
had spent a month trying to understand how authors like James Rollins
and Dan Brown (The
Da Vinci Code) used
commas. It was too confusing; I couldn't find their rules; I couldn't
find their reasons for breaking the EG rules. I was bedeviled. No
human being should have to spend a month thinking about commas, I
still have bad memories of that time.
But when I
looked at Brown and Rollins, now armed with this idle speculation,
their style suddenly made perfect sense -- it was just a sequence of
still wore his Dominican robe, black wool and silk, but it was
stained and torn. His Incan captors had stripped him all possessions,
except for his robe and cross. The tribal shaman had warned the
others not to touch these talismans from his "foreign" god,
afraid of insulting this stranger's deity. (Excavation,
modifying phrase black
wool and silk isn't
really what is supposed to go inside a double comma; the next
sentence's comma probably shouldn't be there, either grammatically or
for meaning; the last sentence has a grammatically misplaced
modifier. So none
of the commas above can be justified in the normal grammar. You can
understand my frustration.
as a sequence of phrases, then -- aha! Eureka! -- it makes perfect
sense. (Try reading it that way -- you won't have any trouble
understanding it.) So I needed SePG to understand modern authors. And
once I read using SePG -- everything they did made sense and even
seemed like good, clever writing.
I showed authors one sentence from Brown, and they invented grammar
rules to cover it. Which is to say, with a modification or stretch or
reinterpretation, they could explain that sentence by Brown as being
everyone had their own, idiosyncratic solution. Even more of a
problem, their efforts just explained the one sentence I gave them.
To understand all of Brown and Rollins, they were going to have to do
of changing to the EG. I had already explored that path, and it
I had explained Brown and Rollins with just one idea, and it was an
idea I already had sitting around from Dickens. Scientifically
speaking, that was a very good sign.
using Brown and Rollins as markers. But it wasn't just them, it was a
lot of authors -- famous, successful authors -- (1) breaking the
rules in seemingly unexplainable ways, and (2) making sense from the
perspective of SePG.
the sand, some of the three-toed bird tracks were small, and so faint
they could hardly be seen. (Jurassic
Crichton, page 13)
is sitting at the front of the sentence like an adverbial phrase, but
it modifies where the tracks were found,
not where the tracks were small.
The last comma separates two objects, which is common in writing
(especially Crichton's), but it's ungrammatical.
despite the rule-breaking, the sentence makes sense. You're not
supposed to be decoding the EG of that sentence -- Crichton thought
of it as a sequence of phrases, and you're supposed to read it that
SePG idea had just gotten serious.
I was snooty about
Dickens, Brown, and Rollins. I'm embarrassed and apologetic about
that now, but it's just who I was: I care deeply about grammar; I try
to make the grammar of my sentences as simple and easy to understand
as possible; I liked reading other authors who easily displayed their
grammar. Dickens, Brown, and Rollins' writing bothered the EG
processor in my head, which kept getting frustrated with the
sentences it couldn't process.
from my perspective, Browns, Rollins, and shady authors like them had
found a way to write ungrammatically and make money. Yes, I was
all-time favorite book is The Fault in
Our Stars, partially for its wonderful
use of punctuation and grammar. Green, the author, occasionally
writes long sentences. When I happened to look at one, soon after my
Brown-Rollins insight, I immediately noticed that Green's long
sentence was . . . too complicated for the EG to be understandable,
but perfectly understandable as a sequence of phrases. Oops.
The following isn't the
first sentence I studied, but it makes the point perfectly. I don't
think it's grammatically correct; if you can work out that it is,
you've wasted your time, and the reader surely is not doing that.
[her parents] met in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea, and so
whenever anything happened there, even something terrible, it was
like all of a sudden they were not large sedentary creatures, but the
young and idealistic and self-sufficient and rugged people they had
once been, and their rapture was such that they didn't even glance
over at me as I ate faster than I'd ever eaten, transmitting items
from my plate into my mouth with a speed and ferocity that left me
quite out of breath, which of course made me worry that my lungs were
again swimming in a rising pool of fluid.
sentences put a burden on the reader, so their grammar must
be easily understood. Knowing this, when I
wrote a long sentence, I unimaginatively used simple grammar. Rushdie
(Shalimar the Clown)
has a 277-word sentence with a relatively simple, understandable
grammar. But Green's sentence was grammatically complicated,
according to EG . . . so it should have been impossible to understand
. . . but it wasn't . . . because it made sense with SePG. Just like
My snooty attitude
crashed and burned when I found SePG in my own writing.
second bullet CRACKLES off the wall to my right, shocking me, I trip
and almost fall, bouncing clumsily against the left wall.
was intentionally being ungrammatical. I knew that. I also knew the
sentence made sense, I made sure of that. The new awareness was why
it made sense: I had unknowingly relied on SePG. (Really, even today
I can turn on my EG processor and be jolted by that sentence. And I
can turn it off and that sentence seems perfectly normal.)
not just me. In
the middle of a book full of grammatically traditional sentences, I
alone with Suzette made Sonia's absence all the more conspicuous, a
ghost in the room. (The Myth of You and
Me, Stewart, page 209)
ghost in the room
looks at first like a misplaced modifier; those are so common
nowadays you wouldn't even have noticed a problem. But it's not clear
that a ghost
in the room
modifies anything. Instead, it's just a phrase ungrammatically added
to the end of the sentence. Meanwhile, the sentence is no problem to
understand as a sequence of phrases.
was annoyed while reading a book by Dressen, because of her "grammar
errors", but I didn't have anything else to read. So, in
desperation, I turned off my EG processor. Then it was this great
story and I wasn't annoyed. She just dips into SePG occasionally. So
SePG isn't just a way to write, it's a way to read.
There is one more piece
of evidence for now. I wrote a short story using SePG (Appendix A).
To make this a good test of SePG, I used ungrammatical sentences in a
lot of places. Would my story be understandable? This is one
paragraph from that story (about two ghosts):
appears next to me, like he does every year. Funny how dying on the
same day and being buried in the same cemetery could tie two guys
together, but there it is -- Norm saying hi, Norm asking about my
afterlife, us shaking hands, then Norm and me sitting on the hill,
sitting and sitting, sharing stories, watching, waiting. Wondering.
A few readers (fellow
writers) complained about the number of commas, but no one had any
trouble understanding the story. So SePG passed the test -- it's an
understandable grammar. I wasn't too surprised -- in a sense Rollins,
Brown, Dickens, et al. had already shown that.
was, meanwhile, thrilled with the result, and thrilled with the
possibilities. I wasn't
in Kansas any more, and I liked this new place I had accidentally
found. It's more colorful, and if there's a dead witch under my house
-- not my problem. The path ahead wasn't paved with gold, but I was
compelled to follow it.
now written a lot in SePG. I have stumbled
upon a modern author (Martin Clark) who writes beautiful SePG. And I
wrote this book, which made me analyze SePG a
is something old, something new, something useful, and did I mention
the part about being fun? It's an exciting world, and it's an
adventure. Grammatically speaking, of course, but grammar is an
incessant part of writing.