Chapter 2: A Basic Definition and Description of SePG
A language first needs words -- sounds or letters that by convention have meaning. You could communicate some with single words:
and you could jumble a few words together and hope they were understood:
There is a huge gain in communication when conventions are made about forming these words into phrases. English of course does this, with conventions about parts of speech, word order, and tenses. it also has words devoted to showing how other words fit together (such as and, which, and the).
Everyone knows these rules. They are (mostly) good rules. There is (mostly) no reason to break them -- a truly ungrammatical phrase will be misleading or hard to read.
Dog the brown quick lazy jumped fox a over.
This book, for the most part, accepts (and appreciates) those rules. (In a few places, the rules for constructing phrases don't work well with SePG.)
So imagine a language with phrases. If there was nothing to separate the phrases (indicate where one stops and the next one starts), it would look like this:
...a bright yellow-white row of teeth appear splintering over the mossy lips to gnash the saw from his hands fling it furiously to the ground it claws screaming machine frenzy and terror trying to dig escape from the vengeful wood just above where old Henry drops his screwjack... (Sometimes a Great Notion, page 500)
That can be understood, but only with a lot of work. For ease in reading, something would be invented to separate phrases.
they all laugh · they have returned to the land of normalcy · I was just their escort · I hate normalcy
Would a language stop with just one separator? Perhaps, but it's also logical to have two separators, one bigger than the other. I call this having two tiers. For example:
they all laugh · they have returned to the land of normalcy ·· I was just their escort · I hate normalcy
To understand this properly, you need to know that the double dot is a bigger division than the single dot -- but you probably already figured that out. Anyway, the double-dot divides this passage into two large parts, and then single dot divides those large parts into smaller parts.
Replacing the dot with a comma and the double-dot with a period gives us a fairly modern-looking two-tiered passage (if you don't mind comma splices):
they all laugh, they have returned to the land of normalcy. I was just their escort, I hate normalcy
We normally don't think of newline (moving to a new line) as punctuation. But it's a separator, larger than the period, and it marks the division between what I will cleverly call paragraphs. That creates a three-tiered grammar. To translate one of my passages into this primitive system (and capitalize the start of sentences):
One of the men has a gun, he shoots at us. His first bullet hits the gate lock, I think maybe opening it. The gunman is getting closer, the second bullet grazes Alex's arm. I see Alex start to bleed
The next bullet will kill Alex. This is not working. I slam my foot on the accelerator, time stands still. I look straight at the man with the gun, focus on his chest
There's a very loud gunshot
That probably looks normal, even though there are no words connecting the phrases and all of the longer sentences are ungrammatical, which is to say, all of the rules for connecting phrases were broken. But it makes sense -- because your brain can understand a sequence of phrases, and because those phrases can be understood that way.
A language could stop at this point, but there's a lot to be said for adding what I will call "connectors" -- words at the start of a phrase that indicate how that phrase connects to the previous phrase (or the idea so far).
He's handsome, but he's just another jock.
A connector is useful when there is a change in mood (but), a change in time (now), or to show how a connector relates to the previous sentence (because, especially).
The grammar of EG doesn't stop here; this hardly even counts as a start for EG. But this is where SePG stops: phrases, separators, and connectors. SePG is, in a sense, a lack of rules and conventions for how to connect phrases; it's all we would have if there were no rules about connecting phrases.
Conventional English Grammar
Starting sometime after 1500, EG developed a fairly elaborate system of connecting phrases. For example, how you connect two phrases depends on whether they are independent clauses, dependent clauses, or predicates, and it depends on whether your connector is a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction.
I am awed by that achievement. I suspect EG is better than SePG for communicating ideas, for example in science, philosophy, and politics; it helps us live in a world of ideas. (I'm using EG to write this book.)
But is the full grammar of English just as good for writing fiction? I had a dream once, and in it were Hemingway and Dickens and Faulkner and Crichton and Evanovich and a few other authors I didn't recognize. And -- in the dream -- Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter had just been published, and they were reading it, marveling at the grammar. They all agreed that it was the best grammar that could ever be written, and after hundreds of years of developing grammar, perfection had been reached.
But then Faulkner, I'm pretty sure, said what they were all thinking: "But it's really hard to understand." And they all nodded. Hemingway said it best: "This grammar shit doesn't work." And then they all started discussing ways to write that would be more meaningful, but no one was listening to anyone else, and they were all taking at once, so I couldn't understand what anyone was saying. Then I woke up.
That was random!
One problem with EG is that is doesn't pay attention to the psychology of reading. It's possible to write a perfectly grammatical sentence that is too psychologically difficult for your brain understand:
The grain that the rat that the cat that the dog chased worried ate lay in the house.
Think about this for a second -- why would a grammar allow construction of a meaningless sentence? Of course, no one would intentionally write something completely unreadable. But they would write:
The grain that the rat ate lay in the house.
The first sentence had four embeddings; this one only has two. So it's understandable. But for the same reason that the first sentence was incomprehensible, this sentence is not easy reading -- embedded phrases are hard on a reader.
Another big problem is this. EG complicated and corrupted the comma by giving it roles within a phrase. To write SePG using a comma as a separator, it's confusing if a comma is also inside a phrase. However, that comma confusion is also a part of EG; I discuss it in my book Modern, Powerful Punctuation and Grammar.
And the conventions in EG for connecting phrases don't work that well. That gives fiction writers a motivation to break those rules, and SePG is their means -- they can break the rules and yet be understood as long as their writing follows the principles of SePG. So for, say, the last 100 years they have been breaking the rules for how to connect phrases, in a variety of ways.
It's hard to find one rule of combining phrases that is not commonly broken. Leaving out commas is so well-accepted that in EG many commas are now called "optional". That's hopelessly vague as a rule, because it doesn't explain why a comma should sometimes be used and sometimes not.
Another example. Comma splices are prohibited in EG, but they cannot be eradicated -- nowadays they are used by almost every writer. So they are often recognized grammatically with the meaningless phrase "sometimes okay". That means the rule against comma splices usually isn't enforced, but if it isn't enforced, why even have it? Fragments will never be a part of EG, but they are an essential part of effective modern writing.
So SePG is knocking on the walls of our precious, hard-earned EG, kind of like the Germanic tribes in the time of Rome. Or rock & roll, I guess, or the video games and modern technology currently desocializing our naive and vulnerable youth. Not my problem, I'm just writing an innocent grammar book.