Talking, like walking, is a natural biological function for humans. Pretty much everybody walks and talks, we learn it automatically, and we do it so well that we rarely even think about it. Writing, by contrast, is unnatural for humans – as unnatural as driving a car or playing a guitar, a matter of technology and art rather than nature and biology – a skill that almost everybody can learn, though not everybody does. Even when one can write, however, it is still the case that some do it better than others, and pretty much everybody is aware of their shortcomings as writers.
In any art, there is a medium, and the medium of writing is language. In our culture, that language is English, and the U.S. educational system teaches its students almost nothing about the English language, beyond a vague anxiety that somebody knows more than you do about what’s "correct". Consequently, Americans are largely innocent of knowledge about the grammar of English, and therefore have a much harder time writing than they ought to, like a painter who has never heard of colors or shapes.
This course, which is open to non-R.C. students and satisfies the LS&A’s Upper-Level Writing Requirement (and may also be counted towards a Linguistics concentration) is designed to alleviate this situation. We will study the medium of writing – English syntax – with particular attention to the construction of effective phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and their assembly into coherent and interesting writing.
For that purpose we will analyze topics like relative clauses, subject and object complements, modal auxiliaries, negation, adverbial clauses, verb inversions, conjunction reduction, transitivity, prepositional phrases and government, pronominal coreference and deletion, and subject-verb agreement, among others. The ultimate goal of the course is to enable the habit of conscious attention to one’s use of language; thus, in every piece of writing submitted students will be expected to be able to justify their use of any word or construction they use, listing the alternatives considered and the reasons for their rejection.
Naturally, this takes practice. There will be weekly writing, two papers with revisions, and a final term paper, with an initial draft and revision. The text is McCawley’s The Syntactic Phenomena of English (2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1998). Recommended but not required is Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 1995). There are no prerequisites.