language

7 Things Every Writer Should Know about Linguistics

It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.

1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.

Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.

2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.

It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.

3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.

Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.

Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.

Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.

4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.

  • Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
  • Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
  • Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
  • Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
  • Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
  • Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
  • Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
  • Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.

5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”

In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.

6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.

The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.

Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.

7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.

Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.

In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven_quote

 

Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!

8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.

It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!

 

Literary Influences: Beowulf

BeowulfHwæt!

(Did it work? Do I have your attention?)

Beowulf is one of those works of literature that, quite honestly, never interested me. Some beefy warrior kills a monster, and then he kills another one, and there’s a dragon in there somewhere, and at the end (spoiler alert!), he dies. I maintained a scornful disinterest for this epic over the course of a decade, until my conversion in my mid-twenties. Here’s how it went down.

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Verbs, Part 6: Conclusion (for now)

Objectives:

  1. Describe major verb features and their functions.
  2. Classify specific verbs according to the theta-roles they assign.

Skill level: Advanced

As indicated by the title, this is the final post in my verb series, though not necessarily my final post on verbs. (Who knows what the future holds, yeah?) This is mostly an overview post, so it’s short, quick, and to the point.

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Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 4: Theta-Roles, or How to Eliminate Passive Voice

My favorite syntax resource, Radford's English Syntax: An Introduction.

My favorite syntax resource, Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction.

The discussion in this post requires a different view of language structure. For a deeper understanding, I refer you to Andrew Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction (ISBN 0521542758), particularly pp. 190-193 . Much of this post draws from that source.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the theta-roles assigned to nouns by verbs.
  2. Revise Passive Voice from sentences by using verbs with alternate theta-role assignments.

Skill level: Advanced

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Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect

This post covers the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect. It’s boring, and I’ve put off writing it forever because it’s boring.

Objectives:

  1. Define the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect.
  2. Supply the correct form for a set of given verbs and features.

Skill level: intermediate

“The past and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

As grammar jokes go, this one is fairly awful. (But I laugh all the same, of course, because my sense of humor apparently sprouted in one of our local corn fields.) Of the verb features, Tense is probably the easiest to understand. Mood, and Aspect were once these nebulous terms to me, conditions that I understood existed but that I couldn’t pinpoint or keep track of. A fourth verb feature, Voice, merits its own post and will be discussed only minimally here.

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Verbs: Part 1 of Many

This post is the first in a series on Verbs. Dry, dry, horrifically essential stuff.

Objectives:

  1. Discuss the difference between finite and non-finite verbs.
  2. Extract all the verbs from a passage of prose; categorize them as finite or non-finite.

Skill Level: beginner

If the five lexical categories were Tolkien’s infamous rings, the Verb would be the One Ring to rule them all.  For writers, it can make or break a narrative. A wrong verb or a wrong tense on a verb can skew your intended meaning and instantly derail your reader’s focus. It can also summon grammar-wraiths to hammer their shrieking condemnation down upon your head. (Man, how I wish I were only kidding about that.)

Thus, as writers, it behooves us to be well acquainted—and perhaps even intimate—with our friend and sometimes friendly nemesis, the Verb.

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Nouns: An Overview

This post provides an overview of the Noun. Skill level: Beginner

Objectives:

  1. Define the term “noun” semantically, morphologically, and syntactically.
  2. Discuss features of nouns in English (number, possession).
  3. Create nouns from other parts of speech using only syntactic placement to indicate the change.

I’d love to say that nouns are a self-explanatory category. I mean, we all know what a noun is, right? Or, we’ve heard the word and have a general idea, or… something. The purpose of this post is to codify that “something” into a more concrete understanding. If you know exactly what a noun is and can accomplish all of the above objectives already, then feel free to move along.

If not, or if you want a refresher, read on.

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I Can Syntax, and You Can Too!

Ease-peasy, this syntax stuff.

Easy-peasy, this syntax stuff.

This posts covers an introduction to basic syntax. Skill level: Beginner.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the three levels of syntax.
  2. Classify words according to their appropriate levels.

For a definition of “syntax,” click here. (I could paraphrase, but I’d have to give credit anyway, so I might as well send you straight to the source.) Right, then. With that settled, let’s jump right in, shall we?

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