Sister Mary Patrick and Prose for Publication

Strong feeling isn't enough to communicate effectively on a topic about which one feels passionately.

By Michelle Martin
Published February 17, 2011

Back in the seventies, in grades seven and eight, I was one of 300 or so victims of an educational concept called the open classroom.

I suppose if all the administrators, teachers and students had put on their Age of Aquarius hats and really worked that model the way it was meant to be worked, the experience would have been all about creativity and independent learning. In practice, at least in my school, it meant four classes of 25 to 30 students, each occupying one of the four corners of a very large room.

Instead of exciting and boundary-pushing learning, there was noise, distraction, noise, decreased privacy for any unfortunate child who was struggling with the material, noise, sideshows of disruptive pupils being hollered at by teachers who had reached their limits, and noise.

Did I mention the noise?

So when it was time to choose a high school to attend, I begged my parents to send me to the nearest convent school: "Please, Mom and Dad, sending me off packing to the nuns, who will teach me how to behave!"

I was ready for some peace, order and good government.

Peace, Order and Good Grammar

Much to my edification, there was also good grammar thrown into the mix. Sister Mary Patrick made sure of it. She taught us English in both grade nine and grade twelve, along with how to write good, clear prose.

I still remember our classroom of 14 year-olds painstakingly composing a short essay, hand-written (we practised penmanship on Fridays), with proper topic sentences and linking sentences for each paragraph.

Order reigned, and she never once raised her voice (a miracle, considering how bratty we were at other times, like the time the Oakville-Burlington route bus driver justifiably refused to drive us any further because of our rowdiness).

In grade 12, we spent our Friday English classes parsing complex sentences, without the benefit of an online parsing program. Was this tedious? Yes, it was a little tedious. How useful was it? It was, and still is, indescribably so (though I won't pretend I don't slip from time to time).

Prose for Publication

For a person to write on a topic about which he or she feels passionately, strong feeling isn't enough to get the job done effectively. Mark Richardson has already given us some excellent tips on copyright and libel issues. I will add to his useful article with some links to practical advice about grammar, and about writing prose for publication.

There are numerous comprehensive grammar resources online, such as this one from the University of Calgary. The Editors' Association of Canada provides a long list of links to assist all aspiring writers and editors in fine-tuning prose, including prose written for the web.

Our own household collection of books about writing includes Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (the electronic version of the original edition can be read online) and Fowler's Modern English Usage.

Both books are not without their critics. Indeed, if you are looking for some controversy to enjoy, language use provides plenty.

Op-Eds and Letters

Once you are ready to move from the armchair enjoyment of controversy to actually wading in and contributing to the dialogue, there are plenty of tips available to help you frame your arguments for the public square.

The New York Times, for example, tells all aspiring op-ed writers just what that esteemed and prestigious paper is looking for, along with an explanation of the editing process used there.

Paul Russell, letters editor for the National Post, has provided some direction for those who wish to begin by writing a letter to the editor. There's no reason the latter wouldn't apply to effective writing for comboxes as well.

RIP Sister Mary Patrick

Effective communication is one of the keys to building cordial relationships with others, which would benefit comboxes everywhere, and which brings me back to Sister Mary Patrick.

When I was finishing up my degree, I ran into her in Toronto at one of the campus libraries. She was spending some of her retirement taking theology courses, and suggested we meet for coffee at this tiny croissant place on one of the side streets nearby (I didn't know about that spot - apparently she had cooler friends than I did).

We met and got all caught up. We talked a bit about which of her former students were doing what, and she mentioned that there was one with whom she still corresponded regularly.

This particular student had been one rough customer, always in some kind of trouble. She was Goth before there were any Goths around our neck of the woods.

Yet here was Sister Mary ("Don't cross your legs, girls, keep both feet flat on the floor under your desks") Patrick telling me how the two of them kept in touch, with genuine affection.

I've no doubt the correspondence on both sides was grammatically and stylistically correct.

Michelle Martin and her husband are watching their 10 children reach adulthood one by one in Hamilton, where they relocated from Toronto 15 years ago. She has been published in both the Hamilton Spectator and Raise the Hammer, as well as in the online edition of the National Post. Michelle has worked in the developmental services sector for many years, most recently as coordinator of the Community Access to Transportation project. However, the opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom


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By Brandon (registered) | Posted February 17, 2011 at 14:03:32

"Please, Mom and Dad, sending me off packing to the nuns, who will teach me how to behave!"

God I'm a jerk. ;)

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted February 17, 2011 at 14:41:45

An important thing to remember is that writing for the internet is very different than writing for the printed page. Ryan has some good guidelines for internet writing here, I recommend anyone forging ahead with an article to have a read.

Also, realize that some sites have editors (like Ryan is here) and if they do expect just that... editing. Sentences may be moved or removed, the order of your article changed, links may be added and full lyrical paragraphs may be broken out into grouping of 2-3 sentences. The editor may break your heart or even anger you but their job is to make your work more 'readable'. I guess the lesson is not to fall too in love with what you've just composed, it will likely be changed somehow. If it's your own blog well then, you make your own rules.

A while back I bought the St. Martin's Handbook For Canadians to help me with writing, maybe someday I'll actually crack it open!

Another great article Michelle.

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2011-02-17 14:43:02

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted February 17, 2011 at 15:05:12 in reply to Comment 59924

I guess the lesson is not to fall too in love with what you've just composed, it will likely be changed somehow.

Amen. I've found over the years, when editing myself, that the best thing is not to get too attached to the actual words to the detriment of the message I am trying to communicate and the overall effectiveness of the communication. Always write with your audience in mind-- or write pretty much the way you would speak to someone about it, if you were trying to convince them of a point.

Just now, I read about how Shakespeare revised his own work quite a bit.

Which leads us to this, though of course that's getting away from prose and into poetry, I suppose.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2011-02-17 15:41:35

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 17, 2011 at 18:24:38 in reply to Comment 59926

I really like Stephen King's take:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

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By Disciplined thought on RTH??? (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2011 at 22:05:01

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2011 at 23:34:25

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 00:46:17

Look everything over assuming that you hate whoever wrote it, and want to pick it apart in every way imaginable. Logic, grammar, context, manners - if you actually care about people taking what you say seriously, don't give them any easy reasons not to.

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By WOW! (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 01:35:39

She was my english teacher as well. 30 years later I still think about her... her voice throughtout the years has helped me a great deal! RIP Sister Mary!

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2011 at 10:10:29 in reply to Comment 59948

Highly ironic spelling mistake...

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 14:01:04

Here is very interesting article on this topic by Clark Whelton in City Journal: What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness- The decline and fall of American English, and stuff.

Here is how it starts...

"I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel." [...] "In 1988, my elder daughter graduated from Vassar. During a commencement reception, I asked one of her professors if he’d noticed any change in Vassar students’ language skills. “The biggest difference,” he replied, “is that by the time today’s students arrive on campus, they’ve been juvenilized. You can hear it in the way they talk. There seems to be a reduced capacity for abstract thought.” He went on to say that immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of kids in ninth grade. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be fine with their high school teachers.” Where, I wonder, did Vagueness begin?"

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 14:10:06 in reply to Comment 60106

Mahesh-- I saw that article the other day. Best language-curmudgeon title ever.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 14:10:22 in reply to Comment 60106

Obligatory reference:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted February 21, 2011 at 14:27:45 in reply to Comment 60106

What a curious commentary. The author's complaint spans the mid-1980's, with the closing anecdote taking place back in 1991. Are there, like, no more recent stories of academics bemoaning the decline of undergraduate English, or whatever?

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 16:09:17

"...English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it..."

Then there is Beckett’s "The Unnamable",(1959) where the opening paragraph defines - "the most sustained attack on the realist tradition".

"Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means...."

Or, as the opening phrases of "Company" make clear:

"A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine. / To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when' he bears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibility of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him. / Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not. "

-more Beckett

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 16:57:40 in reply to Comment 60109

I was wondering about the time frame in that article, too- I was an undergraduate in the mid-eighties and remember how important it was to me and to almost everyone of my acquaintance to be able to express ourselves clearly.

I also remember how, in my third year, after 2 years of science courses with lab work and fact-cramming, I found myself forgetting Sr. Mary Pat's lessons and writing the most dense, turgid introduction to a formal lab report I'd ever read. I took it to a campus writing lab, where the English PhD on duty sat me down and made me explain to him precisely what I was trying to say, then set me about writing it clearly. And that's the job of an editor- to help the writer say precisely what he or she means to say.

If you are interested in more recent references, here's one I ran across, in which the author laments the lost art of editing:

The demands of a global marketplace, the advent of digitisation and the increased importance of sales, publicity and marketing have all contributed to changing the face of an industry that quietly congratulated itself on its genteel bohemianism.

And here's another one I saw a year back. It's an interview with a copy editor from the New Yorker.

You think all those New Yorker authors just spit out perfect copy on the first try?

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2011-02-21 17:01:44

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 19:24:09 in reply to Comment 60115

What Whelton's piece suggests to me is that older grammudgeons are perennially worried about the impending debasement of the language. Orwell worried about it in the 1940s, Whelton was still worried about it in the 1980s, and so it goes today:

The class of 2011 is opinionated and expressive but they can’t structure an essay, don’t know how to write an introduction, write paragraphs that are two pages long, and have murderously bad grammar. This is the lament of professors from Victoria to St. John’s. “The grammar sucks and the writing is awful.” So says Paul Budra, associate dean and English professor at Simon Fraser University, about the quality of the essays he sees: fragments, comma splices, apostrophe, pronoun and agreement errors, and tense mistakes. High school teachers are failing students, he says. “There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine,” he says. “It’s not.”

As I get older, I find I grow less prescriptive in my assessment of spelling and grammar. Viscerally, I still cringe when I read till in place of 'til or cause in place of because - but our language has survived innumerable such transformations already, and today's standard is as much a snapshot of an ever-moving target than the expression of a timeless ideal.

Words we consider slang - like ain't, the contraction of am not in the same vein as aren't and isn't - have been in use for hundreds of years. Likewise, some of the greatest English writers in history started sentences with conjunctions, ended them with prepositions, and committed no end of grammatical abuses in between.

The language can survive all these abuses and more. Ultimately, what matters is whether a given speaker or writer manages to communicate ideas effectively. I'm not persuaded that we're collectively worse at communicating today than the 1980s, or the '40s, or the 18th century.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-02-21 19:24:32

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2011 at 20:32:14 in reply to Comment 60120

Likewise, some of the greatest English writers in history started sentences with conjunctions, ended them with prepositions, and committed no end of grammatical abuses in between.

And of course there's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, provided its meaning is clear. Nothing drives me crazier as a parent to see a child's perfectly grammatical prose corrected by a teacher who thinks that you can't begin a sentence with and or but.

Prepositions can certainly go on the end of sentences if it makes for less awkward reading.

One of my other favourite nuns (whom I also googled and discovered she had passed on) taught grade 11 English, and on grammar Fridays, when she challenged us with sentences that were tricky to correct, or for which two different answers seemed equally possible, she encouraged us to say it out loud, and go for the answer that just felt right. We'd been speaking English long enough, after all (sixteen whole years by then).

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2011-02-21 20:39:26

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2011 at 06:26:37 in reply to Comment 60121

That reminds me of the famous (and, it turns out, apocryphal) Churchill quote:

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

By the way, if you're interested to read about language, it doesn't get a lot better than Language Log.

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