In Praise of Grammar

by | June 21, 2012 | General | 6 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

I recently reread a favorite book from
my youth, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Originally published
in 1868, it is considered to be an early classic of detective
fiction. An unscrupulous British officer stationed in India plucks
the Moonstone, a massive diamond, from the forehead of a Hindu idol
and carries it back to England. Misfortune, reputed to be the effects
of a curse, dogs the man until his death, whereupon the gem becomes a
bequest to his niece upon her eighteenth birthday. On the very night
Rachel receives the stone, however, it disappears from her bedroom.
Broken engagements, assaults, scandal, madness, illness, despair and
death follow, as the mystery becomes increasingly tangled.

The first time I read The Moonstone,
I was caught up in the story. That was long before I began my career
as a writer. During this more recent reading, I found myself at least
as conscious of Collins’ style and craft as I was of the plot.

The novel unfolds in sections narrated
by different individuals, each of whom (according to the framing
conceit of the tale) has been asked to report on the events he or she
personally witnessed relating to the loss of the diamond. Some of
the narrators are major actors in the mystery, while others are
peripheral. Collins does a magnificent job giving each one a
distinctive voice. The various sections not only propel the plot,
reveal clues and cleverly misdirect the reader’s attention, they also
create surprisingly three dimensional images of the characters –
their motivations, prejudices and peculiarities. My pleasure upon
this second reading of the book came as much from appreciating these
unwitting self-portraits as from the gradual unraveling of the
secrets of the stone. And much of the richness of these vignettes
derives from the characters’ differing use of language.

The experience started me thinking
about the wonders of English grammar. Victorian prose tends to be far
more complex grammatically than what you will find in modern novels.
Sentences are longer, with multiple clauses, adverbial modifiers,
rhetorical questions and parenthetical asides. Of course, some
authors of the period produced sentences so pedantic and labored that
they’re painful to read. A more skilled writer (like Collins) uses
these linguistic variations to express nuanced relationships that
would be difficult to communicate with shorter, more direct

Consider the following passage, chosen
more or less at random. The narrator (Franklin Blake) is a young
gentleman, educated in Europe, and hopelessly in love with Rachel.

I might have
answered that I remembered every word of it. But what purpose, at
that moment, would the answer have served?

How could I tell
her that what she had said had astonished me and distressed me, had
suggested to me that she was in a dangerous state of nervous
excitement, had even roused a moment’s doubt in my mind whether the
loss of the jewel was as much a mystery to her as to the rest of us –
but had never once given me so much as a glimpse of the truth?
Without the shadow of a proof to produce in vindication of my
innocence, how could I persuade her that I knew no more than the
veriest stranger could have known of what was really in her thoughts
when she spoke to me on the terrace?

Complex indeed! We have both simple
past (“I remembered”, “I knew”) and past perfect (“had
said”, “had astonished”, “had suggested”). Blake is
describing a past conversation with Rachel, in which they discussed
another conversation that occurred the day after the diamond
disappeared (a time previous to the first conversation). Even more
intricate are the connections between facts and the counter-factual
or hypothetical, both in the simple past (“might have”, “could
I”) and more distant past (“could have known”). The tense
inflections and adverbial modifiers elucidate relationships not only
between different stretches of time but also different degrees of

How many of us could pen a paragraph so
complicated and yet so clear?

As an exercise, I tried to translate
the passage above into simpler, more modern prose.

I could have told
her I remembered every word. But I doubt she would have believed me.

I could have said
that she astonished and distressed me. She had been in a dangerous
state of nervous excitement. I had even wondered whether she really
knew more about the loss of the jewel than the rest of us. But when
we spoke, she hadn’t given me the slightest hint of the truth. Since
I had no proof of my innocence, there was no way I could convince her
that during our conversation on the terrace her accusations were as
much a mystery to me as they would have been to a stranger.

Even this reworking requires the past
and past perfect. There’s no way to get around them, since the
distinction between the first and second conversations is crucial to
the sense of the paragraph. I didn’t manage to completely remove
counter-factual expressions (“could have”,”would have been”),
either. If I had, significant chunks of meaning would have been lost.
As it is, I feel that the translation doesn’t begin to compare with
the original in terms of expressing subtleties of both logic and

Authors today have a tendency to view
grammar as a necessary evil, a set of incomprehensible rules designed
to trip them up as they proceed in telling their story. I look at it
differently. Grammatical structures (and punctuation) exist in order
express linguistic distinctions. As writers, we’re fortunate. English
is capable of communicating a bewildering variety of such
distinctions, in wonderfully precise ways.

By comparison, I’ve been studying a
foreign language where there’s no grammatical difference between
present and past tense, or between singular or plural, a language
without articles or grammatical mechanisms for indicating that
something is contrary to fact. Native speakers manage to understand
one another, but I find the language frustrating in its lack of

I’m sorry to see the changes that are
stripping English of some of its grammatical richness. One rarely encounters the subjunctive anymore, even in written communication.
Semi-colons are practically extinct. Indeed, one of my publisher’s
house style prohibits them, along with parenthetical asides.

Since I began publishing, my own
writing has followed the popular trends. I’ve learned to limit
subordinate clauses to no more than one or two per sentence. I’ve
been trained to avoid long passages in the past perfect and to eschew
adverbs. I won’t say that my writing has necessarily suffered; my
early work definitely tends to be overly prolix. Still, I sometimes
feel like rebelling against the starkness and simplicity of modern

When that happens, I sometimes write
something pseudo-Victorian. Here, for instance, is a passage from
Incognito, ostensibly from a Victorian woman’s secret diary:

I scarcely know
how to begin this account of my adventures and my sins. Indeed, I do
not fully understand why I feel compelled to commit these things to
writing. Clearly, my purpose is not to review and relive these
experiences in the future, for in twenty minutes’ time these
sentences will be invisible even to me. Perhaps in the years ahead, I
will trail my fingers across the empty parchment, coloured like
flesh, and the memories will come alive without the words, coaxed
from the pages by my touch like flames bursting from cold embers.

I have a secret
life, another self, and that secret has become a burden that I clutch
to myself, and yet would be relieved of. So, like the Japanese who
write their deepest desires on slips of rice paper and then burn
them, I write of secret joys and yearnings, and send that writing
into oblivion.

Let me begin
again. My name is Beatrice. The world sees me as poised, prosperous,
respectable, wife of one of Boston’s leading merchants and
industrialists, mother of two sweet children, lady of a fine brick
house on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, with Viennese crystal
chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, French velvet draperies, and Italian
marble fireplaces. I devote myself to the education of my dear Daniel
and Louisa, the management of my household, works of charity,
cultural afternoons. In sum, the many and sundry details of
maintaining oneself in proper society.

Though I have
borne two children, I am still considered beautiful. Indeed, with my
golden locks, fair skin, turquoise eyes and rosy lips, I am often
compared to an angel. How little they know, those who so describe me.
For in truth, I am depraved, wanton, and lecherous, so lost that I do
not even regret my fall.

Ah, the glorious grammar!

Am I the only one out there aroused by
this structural intricacy, as artful and constraining as shibari?

Photo by Dirty Diana

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Jeremy Edwards

    Love this, Lisabet. I'm a big grammar fan, too—and I don't mean that in a grammar-cop sort of way (the grammar cops are not even correct, more often than not), but just like you, admiring and appreciating the flexibility and subtlety the grammar system provides.

    There's a wonderful book called The Unfolding of Language, and one of the points it makes is that as certain old elements of language fall by the wayside, other things develop in their place: it's just one of the ways in which living languages constantly evolve. (The focus, as I recall, is not on quite the types of elements you're discussing here, but I imagine the same principles apply.) It has to be organic, of course: if semicolons eventually become obsolete, it will be because writing styles such as mine that involve them gradually die out, and not because anybody banned them.

  2. Paul McDermott

    I write as a fully paid-up member of the Grammar Gestapo AND the Punctuation Police … LOL

    There is most assuredly NOTHING I find more irritating, irksome and infuriating as the the diurnal diet of media mediocrity which masquerades as an acceptable article in national newspapers.

    The rich vocabulary of Chaucer, Milton or Pope is priceless in its purity. Shakespeare even makes jokes about the value of punctuation in MSD with Bottom's speech beginning: "If we offend. It is with our good will we are not here." etc

    Tossing the baby out with the bath water. This happened in the UK when LATIN disappeared almost completely from the curriculum in most schools. Basic grammar in every country in Europe which was ever influenced by the Roman Empire devolves directly from the principles of the classical tongue, the common language (in its heyday) of every educated "cives" [= 'citizen'] in the World…

    A language can also tell us something about the people who speak it. Did yo now, for eample, that in Gaelic there is no SINGLE word for "Yes" or "No" – but the most likely answer you'll get if you ask a "Yes or No" type question is: b’fthéidir – "Maybe, perhaps"

  3. Jeremy Edwards

    Paul, I strongly recommend you check out The Unfolding of Language, if you're interested. (I have no vested interest in this book, btw.) I think it very effectively challenges some of the traditional assumptions in this area (e.g., the purity of classical Latin).

  4. Paul McDermott

    Jeremy,I will certainly check out the book, it sounds very interesting.
    Just to be clear: I'm not trying to 'defend' Latin for its "purity" – 8 years under the caring hands of the Jesuits means I know just how many "irregular verbs" exist in classical Latin!
    My point is that the basic "building blocks" of most European languages is rooted in/guided by the principles of Latin grammar. This (for me at least) has meant that learning another language has not been as difficult as it COULD have been if I hadn't studied Latin. I accept this won't work for everyone, but it works for me!j rposoc

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Paul and Jeremy,

    I appreciate your comments. (Guess grammar isn't something to attract most readers – even when combined with bondage!)

    I took four years of Latin, and count it as one of the most useful parts of my education. The thing about Latin (as it is or was taught in modern times) is that it gives you a framework for understanding grammar – a set of terms and a structure. Of course not every language fits this structure, but one learns as much from the contrasts as from the similarities.

    Jeremy, I'd love to think English is evolving in an organic manner, that we're not losing richness, we're just changing. Honestly, however, I doubt this. The average reader/speaker of English has become impatient. I worry that the English of tomorrow will be more like shorthand than Shakespeare.

  6. Craig Sorensen

    Excellent post.

    The current trend to strip back English grammar makes me cringe. In our desire to use the most basic elements robs the range of expression. I love the rich language of old.

    For the record, I still use semicolons regularly, both in creative writing and my business correspondence. I've had editors strip them out; however that doesn't stop me from continuing to use them.

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