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Eric Dayton, Philosophy Faculty

Grammar and Mechanics

Is attention to grammar and mechanics important in a philosophy essay?

It's pretty clear that student culture today, undergraduate student culture, is not a very literate culture. You can hear conversations where the word 'like' is used as a connective a hundred times in the conversation. 'I was like this. She was like that. And I was like. And she was like. And I was like.' It's a kind of a presentation of little images connected by 'then I said this, and then she said that, and then I said this,' and it's a sort of a reporting. It's shorthand reporting of a conversation that you had with one person, or how you felt and could have said, to another person. You can't write like that. Nobody would know what you're talking about, because... The referent in speech is always available and if it isn't, the person will say, 'What are you talking about?' And you can tell them. (You've got body language.) You've got body language. In writing, you need grammar, because you don't have body language and because you don't have an available referent. The grammar of your sentences picks out the 'what it is' that you're talking about. If you can't write a clean sentence that picks out 'A' rather than 'B', then you can't distinguish between 'A' and 'B' in your writing, and then you can't explain why 'A' is better than 'B' or why 'B' is better than 'A'. From my point of view the key to grammar is thinking of your thought as picking out a possible state of affairs, exactly. So that any of the ones that are a whole lot like it but are a little bit different are all ruled out by the very grammar that you use. If you say, 'Two sick cats lay on the bed,' that's not the same as 'three sick cats' or 'two sick puppies', or 'on the couch'. You know, those are all different meanings. Grammar is this wonderful device for producing clarity. So, people should learn the subtleties and richnesses of grammar, like subordinate clauses and subjunctives, and so on, so that they can actually negotiate ideas. (And taking the time to choose a clear verb, or choose a clear adjective, or...) Right. Right. One which is more precise rather than less precise, one that actually explains what was being said rather than just sort of shoot[ing] a gun in the general direction of the thought. Very often, students don't realize how inarticulate their writing is, because, as I said, they know what they were trying to say when they wrote it. That colours their reading. One thing students can do is just get their roommate to read what they wrote and their roommate will typically not have a clue what they were talking about, and say 'What did you mean?' (And it's not because the roommate is unsophisticated, but maybe more to do with the writing being...) ...the writing being unclear, yeah.