Grammar/style for mathematicians?
September 18, 2014 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning about the details of English grammar and usage, and also maybe in picking up some prescriptions or guidelines for writing well-styled/balanced prose (a la Strunk & White, though my understanding is that there's potentially a great many schools of thought to look at here). The kicker: my academic background is in math and computer science, including the very formal reaches of things like logic, formal languages, etc. Is there any way that this stuff can help me learn that stuff?

In particular, is there any especially elegant/systematic/diagrammatic/intuitive way to learn about English grammar and style past what got drilled and memorized at the elementary school level? Book recommendations especially welcome.
posted by karo to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I generally recommend Joseph Williams' Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace for advanced students who nevertheless want to refine their prose. It starts from the assumption that you know what you want to say, but still want to learn how best to say it.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is not the grammar handbook to end all grammar handbooks, but it's certainly a memorable way to pick up the basic concepts.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:51 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


“I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” - Gertrude Stein

There's apparently been a little bit of a diagramming renaissance lately. (I haven't read the book they talk about, but it did get some good reviews.)

I was a huge diagramming fiend as a kid. I don't know what if any affect it had on my writing, but it is all about mapping out the logical structure of natural language, and articulating the relationships among words. So I'd imagine it would help some with clarity, especially for someone with your background.

And it's fun either way.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:49 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm assuming you want to improve your academic/scientific writing rather than fiction prose or something like that. Given this assumption, I would recommend working through an introductory textbook on syntax. Andrew Carnie and Liliane Haegeman both have ones that should be fairly accessible. You'll grok the formalism easily with your kind of background. It teaches you a new way of thinking about language that will help you really understand some of the things that make writing clear: what it means to have parallel structures, what are the causes of ambiguity, etc.
posted by karbonokapi at 5:15 PM on September 18, 2014


Clarifying re:karbonokapi, and since this isn't at all clear in my question---I'm actually pretty satisfied with my technical writing, and from what I've been told seem to have an above-par sense of how to keep dense technical prose readable. I'm looking to improve exactly my writing in fiction, creative non-fiction, essays, etc. Part of what I'm interested in here is how changing up syntax and deviating from the "standard" rules and/or stylistic prescriptions can affect voice/tone, and it seems to me that a reasonable way to approach that is to have some systematic understanding of what those rules/prescriptions are, rather than just an instinctual feel for them. (Full disclosure: this is largely motivated by having heard David Foster Wallace make lots of offhanded references in interviews and such to doing these sorts of intentional, calculated things with syntax without ever explaining what he's really up to.)
posted by karo at 6:31 PM on September 18, 2014


You could try out an introductory textbook in modern generative syntactic theory, like this. With a math and comp sci background I think you're likely to find it somewhat more satisfying than trying to diagram sentences. It won't teach you about style per se, but maybe it will give you the vocabulary to think about how you might find ways to cleverly break the implicit rules of grammar on your own.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:25 PM on September 18, 2014


(I sometimes describe theoretical linguistics as "using my math brain to think about language", by the way, which is why I think you might like it).
posted by ootandaboot at 7:27 PM on September 18, 2014


What ootandaboot said. I used to have to get my (CS/math major) husband to help me with my syntax and phonology class, because it was more like programming than like writing. Discovering the "deep rules" of English that go way beyond subject-verb-object was really fascinating, though.

Words and Rules by Steven Pinker might be a good one to read. There are some other recommendations here.
posted by wintersweet at 7:48 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh, from your expanded explanation, it sounds like you're looking for a handbook of (literary) rhetorical devices. This is a good one. As is this.

And this site offers a taste of the second book, to give you an idea of the sort of things covered.

(Of course, it's less about memorizing the names of all the devices than it is about just sharpening your eye to them and being able to articulate the syntactic tricks and how they affect the mood of writing. And if you want to witness them in their natural habitat, here is Thomas Love Peacock on Gutenberg. He's a popular go-to for illustrating these devices.)

Of course, you can also read up on basic linguistics, and you will never be sorry you did, but this might drill specifically down into the type of literary flourish you seem to be interested in.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:25 AM on September 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


For your purposes, I'd actually recommend writing imitations: pick a particular chunk of prose, and see whether you can write a couple of paragraphs in that voice on your own topic. This trains you to notice what's distinctive about a particular style or way of writing, and it's also just fun.

(As an example, if I were imitating your question-asking style, I'd write "style/way of writing".)
posted by yarntheory at 9:39 AM on September 19, 2014


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