A Eye for Grammar and an Ear for Style

The metaphors for knowing style indicate that writing style touches on a number of different senses for aesthetics. We speak of having an ear for what sounds right as if writing were akin to music. We speak of having an eye for good writing as if it were a visual aesthetic in much the way painting or fashion are. The direct way of speaking about writing would be to comment on the structure of the grammar that goes into its composition but doing so misses so many of the effects writing style can have on a reader.

Good writing style can often be broken down into grammatical structures, but doing so tells us little about why it affects us so. Most writers usually do not set out to compose a piece with certain structures. Instead they try to tune their style to the subject matter in an intuitive matter.

This intuition is often misunderstood or ignored by much of what I have seen in the writings of those who have been trained in linguistics or those who put a good deal of value on writing grammatically.  Most linguists I have read seem to lack any sense of style but write with exquisite grammatical clarity.

Employing an understanding of grammar to compose with a distinct and effective writing style appears to be related to the functioning of what is often called meta-cognition, which involves the ability to monitor your own thinking.  Meta-cognition is much like the ability to make a judgment about the quality of effectiveness of one’s own learning or expression.

English instruction from Kindergarten through high school focuses on writing grammatically correct sentences without much attention to the effect the structure of the sentence creates.  There is nothing wrong with working on grammar in isolation from style. Doing so probably allows students a greater ability to focus on particular issues and to gain a better understanding of the mechanics behind their own writing. A problem arises when grammar instruction becomes an issue of correctness rather than issue of writing style and clarity of thought.

About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

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