In late June I went to Santa Cruz for a graduation, Sacramento for a presentation at an ERWC leadership conference, and then to Monterey for the Young Rhetoricians Conference, a delightful small conference frequented mostly by Community College folk, but with a smattering of K-12 and university people as well. The hotel is right on the beach. These days, the high tide reaches almost up to the seawall. It’s lovely, but probably doomed by climate change. The ocean will take it eventually.
One of the presentations I saw was “On and beyond Grammar B” by Randy Fallows and Tamar Christensen from UCLA. Grammar B is a concept introduced in a 1980 book by Winston Weathers, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. “Grammar A” is what Weathers calls the traditional “grammar of style” that insists on “continuity, order, reasonable progression and sequence, consistency, unity, etc.” (6). Weathers argues that whether you write like Henry James, or write like Ernest Hemingway, you are still writing in Grammar A.
Grammar B is an alternate “grammar of style” that deploys variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and other disjunctive devices. Grammar B is not bad Grammar A. Weathers characterizes it as a different game, with its own rules, played with the same deck of cards. Grammar B is not new, nor was it invented by Winston Weathers. Writers as diverse in style and time as Laurence Sterne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence have played this game.
However, even as we have students read Grammar B authors such as the above, we persistently teach them Grammar A. Weathers argues that if we add Grammar B, we will give students “a much more flexible voice, a much greater communication capacity, a much greater opportunity to put into effective language all the things they have to say” (8). I might also add that there will be less disjunction between the literature they read and the writing they are asked to do. Also, Grammar B is more fun.
What exactly is Grammar B? First, it deploys some different genres and treats traditional genres in a looser, more playful way.
According to Weathers, “crot” is a obsolete word meaning “bit” or “fragment” resurrected by Tom Wolfe in the introduction to a book of fiction from Esquire magazine. It is an autonomous bit of discourse, set off without transitions between previous or subsequent crots. (If you don’t like the sound of “crot,” in “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art” Peter Elbow calls them “blips” (3).) A crot can be a single sentence or many.
One way of thinking about this is to use the ancient Greek term “parataxis.” “Parataxis” is to put elements side-by-side and let the reader intuit the connections between them. Humans are good at this, but different readers will imagine different connections. The opposite is “hypotaxis” in which transitions and connections are made clear. Logically, this is the sophists versus Aristotle, or Grammar B versus Grammar A. Note also that by putting “versus” between those terms, I am specifying a contrastive relationship. For the most part, this blog post is written in hypotaxic Grammar A.
Really Long Sentences and Fragments
Two other stylistic devices favored by Grammar B are “the labyrinthine sentence” in which one grammatical sentence goes on forever, and the sentence fragment. Both of these are strongly discouraged by Grammar A teachers, often marked as “run-on” or “frag.” Yet both are common in literary texts.
This section of the book reminded me of Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin, a book I assign in my genre fiction course. One of the early activities is “write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence” (32). My students usually freak out because this is so contrary to what they have been taught. They freak out even more when she asks them to write 150-350 words of narration with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Exercises such as this demonstrate how much students have been brainwashed by their instructors about “correctness.”
Many students have read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. One whole chapter is simply a list of items carried by G.I.s in Vietnam during the war, clearly a Grammar B technique. Lists are powerful. The items form connections. They have contexts. They say things about the listmaker and his or her times and purposes. It is easy for students to make lists.
This technique involves a conversation between two voices that may in fact not be hearing each other. There might be tension between what the writer is thinking and what he or she is writing. It might be objective description plus ironic commentary. The voices might be in separate columns or alternating sentences. This is not quite the heteroglossia that Bakhtin is talking about when he describes an author taking speech from a specific part of society and putting it into the mouth of a character, where it has the voice of the original speakers, the voice of the character, and the voice of the author, all speaking at once. However, Bakhtin would recognize the technique instantly.
Repetition and Refrains
Writing that repeats phrases almost like the refrain of a song is discouraged by English teachers, though in disciplines like Engineering, synonyms and circumlocutions are frowned upon and a strut remains a strut throughout the document no matter how many times it is repeated. Here in Grammar B, however, repetition is used for an aesthetic effect, to remind, to call upon sameness and difference, in the way that a refrain like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Memphis Blues Again” in a Bob Dylan song repeats the same words in every chorus, but evokes a different meaning every time it comes around.
There’s more of course. Language play. Puns. Fanciful spelling. Unconventional orthography and layout. Lots of fun stuff. (A bit of Grammar B here.)
In the Classroom
Fallows and Christensen Have incorporated activities based on Grammar B in their First Year Writing course and upper-division courses. A lower-division assignment says:
While more traditional academic essays compel you to justify your perspective and reach definitive conclusions in a seemingly objective manner, grammar b essays encourage you to explore your ambivalence in an openly subjective manner. That being said, grammar b shares the same goal as traditional academic essays in that it should bring about new perspectives and insights as you explore the nuances of your subject. Through the use of stylistic choices, you can explore any number of conflicting or coinciding thoughts by utilizing different genres, juxtaposing opposing perspectives, jumping around in time, and making the layout of your page reflect the layout of your thoughts.
To my eye, this assignment is dancing between Grammars A and B, probably to avoid freaking out the students (as my students did when asked to write without punctuation) and to appease the institutional authorities, who will perhaps tolerate alternative pedagogies as long as the students end up fluent in Grammar A. But there is a lot of leeway here for exploration and expression, much more than in a traditional essay. This looks really cool. I think writing courses should teach both grammars.
Update: Here is a link to a poem about teaching that I wrote in Grammar B.
Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2015.
Weathers, Winston. An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Rochelle Park, New Jersey: Hayden Book Co., 1980.
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I learned about Grammar B many decades ago, in a writing class at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Grammar B, along with Poetic License and the ancient Greek concept of Ekphrasis, has inspired me to write poetry for the last five decades. I’m currently writing Petrarchan and Spenserian sonnets ending in alexandrine couplets. Some of my alexandrines are written using Grammar B, Poetic License and Google Translate’s Artificial Intelligence, which temporarily learned Grammar B and Poetic License from me in translating foreign languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Mandarin Chinese into English and vice versa. I’m having a blast right now with Chinese slang. The titles of poems in my “Paracosm” sonnet series are labyrinthine sentences.