ENGLISH 101.  ACADEMIC WRITING
 22. Dr. E's grammar sequence


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22-7 Three Classic Styles:
 low, middle, high

 

 

Lessons 

Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam
   

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 


Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 

 

 

Most college handbooks on writing advise students to use a variety of sentence patterns to avoid monotony. Fine. But if you have anything complicated to write about, and if you write about it honestly, you won't have to worry about sentence variety. It will be there. Your sentences will be varied, complicated, and complex because sentences expand and contract to express the reality of the issue at hand. Things are not often as simple as the simple sentence:

(a) Things need to be explained . . . . . . . (so we need to use a lot of clauses beginning with 'because');

(b) things need to be qualified . . . . . . . (so we need to use a lot of clauses beginning with 'although' and 'except');

(c) things need to be made conditional on other things. . . . . . . (so we need to use a lot of 'if' clauses);

and things need to be modified . . . . . . . (so we need adverbs, adjectives and phrases of every stripe and length).

Because of all of the if's, but's, and however's of your subject, your words are likely to be varied enough. Clarity, not variety, is the biggest problem that most serious writers face.

The paratactic (or "low") style

Some writers of course throw the idea of variety to the four winds. Their work, because of its sameness or repetitiveness in sentence patterns, gets into textbooks on style. For many centuries, rhetoricians in Greek and Latin and English alike have observed three distinct styles based on clauses.

Let's begin with the simplest, known as the "paratactic" or "low" style. Consider the following passage from Joy Williams' essay "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp." (Williams is addressing a Young, Urban, Professional in this very eighties popular essay.)

Tourism has become an industry destructive as any other. Tourism is a growth industry. You believe in growth. Controlled growth, of course. Controlled exponential growth is what youíd really like to see. You certainly donít want to put a moratorium or a cap on anything. Thatís illegal, isnít it? Retro youíre not. You donít want to go back or anything. Forward. Maybe ask directions later. . . .

Aristotle said that all living things are ensouled and striving to participate in eternity.

Oh, I just bet he said that, you say. That doesnít sound like Aristotle. He was a humanist. Weíre all humanists here. This is the age of humanism . And it has been for a long time. . . .

Youíre pretty well off. You expect to be better off soon. You do. What does this mean? More software, more scampi, more square footage? You have created an ecological crisis. The earth is infinitely variable and alive, and you are killing it. It seems safer this way. But you are not safe. You want to find wholeness and happiness in a land increasingly damaged and betrayed, and you never will. More than material matters. You must change your ways. . . .

What's the variety here? Some of the language uses sentence fragments, but where there are sentences they are simple and short. The phenomenon of simple sentence after simple sentence after simple sentence is highly noticeable because strings of simple sentences aren't normal in speech. Nobody really talks this way. Even kids don't talk this way. (Kids have a tendency to string all their little sentences together with the conjunction 'and.' ) So when a writer uses a series of simple sentences, the language is calling attention to itself, or to some physical aspect of the meaning of the words.

There are two different terms for this style.

When it's used in first grade readers called primers (rhymes with trimmers) it's called (what else?) primer style. "See Spot. See Spot run." You get the drift. No one recommends primer style for writing academic papers.

When strings of short sentences are used adult-to-adult, however, as they seem to be in the Williams essay above, the style is called paratactic (from the Greek verb paratassein: to arrange side by side). The point is, the clauses are arranged side by side, without connecting words, without conjunctions).

Here's the world's most famous use of parataxis, and some of its literary descendants:

I came. I saw. I conquered (Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars).

I came. I saw. I had a good time (Hallmark Cards).

I came. I sawed it. I fixed it (tee shirt).

In Teaching Prose, Fredric V. Bogel, to whom I owe the above definition of parataxis, exemplifies it in the following passage, a description of "life in corporate America" by Russell Baker:

Some jobs in the building require men to fill paper with words. There are persons who type neatly on paper and persons who read paper and jot notes in the margins. Some persons make copies of paper and other persons deliver paper. There are persons who file paper and person who unfile paper.

Some persons mail paper. Some persons telephone other persons and ask that paper be sent to them. Others telephone to ascertain the whereabouts of paper. Some persons confer about paper. In the grandest offices, men approve of some paper and disapprove of other paper.

Bogel explains, "The dominant impulse in this passage is paratactic, and the commonest conjunction is the coordinating 'and.' The effect, here, is one of numbing sameness and of disconnection: all those people doing things with paper, and yet doing them, it seems, in relative isolation from one another" (185).

Disconnection might be the basic message of the paratactic style. But is it always? Can parataxis embody other kinds of reality? Pure energy? Sarcasm? Demented focus? Aggression? Guerrilla [syn]tactics? Or will the impression created by this sentence type depend on other things in the passage? The meaning of the words for instance?

The extended coordinate ("middle") style

A second exaggerated style that we can look at, to contrast with the paratactical style, is closer to natural speech but not much closer to standard academic writing. What the late James E. Robinson (in his book The Scope of Rhetoric) calls the extended coordinate style is the lacing together of several clauses with the coordinating conjunction 'and.' (This style is ancient and went by other names in other literary traditions.) This can be a style for kids, poets, mystics, seers, and others who are interested above all else in connections, in seeing things whole, because this style can link anything and everything in the world:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

And the evening and the morning were the first day (Genesis 1: 1 - 5).

Robinson describes this passage as a series of clauses, "each of them independent but all together gathering the whole universe into being" (257). He also excerpts this passage from Ernest Hemingway's short story "In Another Country":

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Robinson remarks on the unity of this passage, too. But this style can have other effects as well. What do you think of the above passage? Is the effect not only one of unity but of simplicity, too? Perhaps there's even a disregard for the logical relationships that would exist among the clauses (if the writer chose to use subordinating conjunctions)?

Here's another modern example, a parody of the style:

O generation of the thoroughly smug and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
and I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing (Ezra Pound "Salutation").

The extended coordinate style is unsuitable in most academic writing contexts.

The extended subordinate ("high") style or hypotaxis

But wait, classical rhetoric gives us not only an extended coordinate style but also an extended subordinate style. And, you've guessed it--if an extended coordinate style is marked by lots of clauses linked by the coordinating conjunction 'and,' then an extended subordinate style is one that's marked by lots of clauses linked by subordinating conjunctions.

Take a look at what happens in the subordination of clauses. Subordination is a way of making pieces of information less important than other pieces of information. It's a way of subordinating some of the things we say to other things we say.

For example, if I say "Jennifer is quiet, and she's perceptive," I have two independent clauses, equally important. But if I say "Because she's quiet, Jennifer's very perceptive," then I've done two things:

I've expressed a relationship (of causality) between the two clauses, and the 'reason' clause (the one beginning with 'because') is grammatically dependent on the other, independent clause.

I've expressed a relationship of hierarchy between the two clauses: the 'reason' clause is less important than the main clause. Look at it again: "Because she's quiet, Jennifer is very perceptive." The clauses aren't equal anymore; Jennifer's perceptiveness is grammatically and conceptually more important than her quietude.

Actually, in classical rhetoric the term used for the extended subordinate style is hypotaxis. This word comes from the Greek verb hypo-tassein, to place under. 'Placing under' is just what I'm doing when I subordinate one piece of information to another piece of information. So, in a real sense, this style is hierarchical in nature. "A prose style that makes considerable use of subordination--and thus of complex or compound-complex sentences--will organize things in an intensely hierarchical (hypotactic) way" (Bogel 184).

The hypotactic style is important for at least two reasons. First, this closely reasoned, logical style is the style of most academic discourse. Its clauses are connected not by the loosely unifying conjunction and of the extended coordinate style, but by all the subordinating conjunctions--the conjunctions that express causality, consequence, sequence, condition, contingency; the conjunctions that show logical relationships, the ones that explain things. Knowing this can make you sensitive to the webs of meaning in an academic text.

Second, hypotactic style can be highly literary and oratorical. "Such a style rearranges linear sequence as hierarchical structure," says Bogel. Among its effects are transforming what is basically "a linear process of thought" into "a simultaneous comprehension" of the ideas expressed; in short, "the yellow brick road becomes a twelve-story hotel" (185).

Look at the following passage from Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and notice all his subordinate clauses (the ones starting with "when"). If you find yourself unable to let go of all the information in the subordinate clauses until the independent clause hits at the very end, then you will experience the power of hypotaxis:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill our black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking; "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Assignment (due in Lesson 23): During the next two lessons, we will review fellow students' draft research papers, as assigned by the instructor. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: Julius Caesar, classical master of the paratactic style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: the Stoic philosopher Seneca, a Roman from the province of Spain, is regarded as the classical master of the extended coordinate style, which is sometimes called "the Senecan amble." If he looks a little haggard, maybe it's because he got the job of teaching young Nero. When the lessons were over, Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: Roman lawyer and senator Cicero, classical master of the extended subordinate style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess © 2003