Feel the power
Roy Peter Clark wants you to be empowered.
Empowerment comes through expression, particularly in writing, because power resides within words. He comes to this insight through the etymological connection between grammar and glamour. Grammar, which originally indicated the whole range of knowledge, became glamour in Scottish English for power in magic, spell-casting, the manipulation of language. (The transformation of the latter word into a label for women who wear too much makeup is a subject for another time.)
So if you want to be autonomous, to have some control over the external world and to influence the people in it, you must master the use of words, never more than when you write. We should all “be on the lookout for language that builds a bridge between the world of things and the world of ideas.”
Don’t cower. Dr. Clark, a fixture at the Poynter Institute for thirty years, doesn’t want you to be afraid. He wants you to relish language, explore it, exploit it, revel in it. In The Glamour of Grammar (Little, Brown, 294 pages, $19.99), he shows you the possibilities.
In fifty short essays on various aspects of writing—vocabulary, mechanics of writing, usage—he covers the territory. He wants you to make use of the full resources of English, quoting approvingly Camille Paglia’s appreciation of its “blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction.”
He wants you to wallow in the dictionary, use the serial comma (good man!), use the active and passive voices when either is appropriate, ignore language crotchets, recognize when nonstandard English will work, use different sentence lengths and forms for pacing, and illuminate the abstract with the particular.
For example, he says, “Language can be general or particular, and the reader or writer must be versatile enough to travel back and forth between the two. Writers and readers look for the small thing the represents the big thing, whether in the form of a microcosm) a closed auto plant used to exemplify the depressed economy), a telling detail (a man who wears his grandmother’s wedding ring in her honor), the objective correlative of the poet (the object that correlates to an emotion—the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain), or a specific example used to make a point or teach a lesson.”
If you have not twigged to it yet, he is not of the hectoring, bullying school of language advice. He is an encourager, and the splendid texts with which he illustrates his points indicate the catholicity of his tastes and his relish for good writing in all its forms. (He knows that if you want to be serious as a writer you must read widely.) He revels in language and thinks you can, too, and should.
As I mentioned, this is a book of short chapters. He points to rules and conventions that the effective writer must master, and he indicates the areas in which the writer must develop judgment, but this book is an introduction to the whole range of writing, not a comprehensive manual. It is a good book for an aspiring writer, humane and sensible about the great craft, relishing its possibilities and its power.
And even I, long sunk in drudgery, found it heartening.