Everyone has a writing tick, a repetitious practice that can become like a written accent. At best, these idiosyncrasies establish distinct voice and compelling narrative style. At worst, a writing tick catches in the reader’s ear like the incessant “like” of an 80’s Valley Girl.
Sometimes, these ticks, these writing stammers, involve the repetition of overused words. In examining this phenomenon, this reliance on extra verbiage, The Atlantic published a list of these words, words they call “crutch words.” The article’s title, “A Literal Epidemic of Crutch Words,” alludes to overuse of the word “literal,” a crutch word that peppers discourse and has, in its adverbial form, evolved in meaning. To the chagrin of former English teachers and insufferable language aficionados (this writer is both) “literally” can now, informally the OED notes, mean the opposite: “Used for emphasis while not being literally true.” But this is old news, a tale of word woe from years past. While the misuse and overuse of crutch words can amount to a writing tick, often, the ticks we have are structural foibles, idiosyncratic architectural signatures.
Can you tell what mine is? So far, by my count, I’ve already done it seven times.
I abuse appositives, nouns and noun phrases that further explain or rename the nouns they are adjacent to. For example, in that last sentence, the one where I define appositives, I’ve used “nouns and noun phrases…” in apposition with “appositives.” “Apposition,” can be used in this grammatical context, a way of describing the relationship these nouns and noun phrases have side by side.
I’ve learned, through the serendipity of a Google search, that in biology, “apposition” means “the growth of successive layers of a cell wall.” Growth, a way of layering on additional material, an expansion of space by adding more stuff. At best, this is what my writing tick accomplishes: more layers, more meaning. At worst, it makes me sound verbose, bloated like a pretentious blowhard.
The origins of my writing tick are not terribly erudite. In fact, the genesis of my apposition affliction was an exercise of my own making, one employed while teaching ninth grade English. Teaching grammar had become a chore, a task that both my students and I came to abhor. Also, I had noticed that, while my students’ essays could be relatively error free, their sentences were uniform in length and shape, the subject-verb-object template replicating ad-nauseum. Eager to give them more diverse schematics for their sentences, I found a workbook, a collection of exercises, called Grammar for High School: A Sentence Composing Approach. It was this “sentence composing approach” that intrigued me. The authors of the workbook want to teach students “to build better sentences through the application of grammar to writing improvement,” and “to use rich sentences from literature as models.”
The book suggests imitation as a method to inspire new sentence styles. Each section examines a new tool writers can add to their sentence carpentry tool belt: adjective clause, participial phrase, infinitive phrase, appositive phrase, etc.
The book provides models to imitate from published works ranging from Moby Dick to Harry Potter. The following example, from Ann Patchett’s, Bel Canto, illustrates the appositive clause:
Gen Watanabe, the young man who worked as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, leaned over and spoke the words in Japanese to his employer.
I would instruct my class, “See how ‘the young man who worked as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator’ further identifies ‘Gen Watanabe’?” We would then construct our own sentences, sharing our work on the white board until all the space was filled with our appositive-phrase-laden labor.
We did these exercises, the imitations, for a variety of phrases and sentence structures, but in what was becoming a never-ending quest for “more specificity” I returned to the appositive phrase, often citing it as a way for students to be more specific and precise with language. I’m not certain that this work achieved the desired effect. Repetitive noun phrases are not always precise.
The true lasting mark of this appositive odyssey is my writing tick, a stuttering sentence structure as indelible and regrettable as a neck tattoo. Sometimes, it feels like my writing is nothing but this assortment of ticks, these internalized indiscretions that have become involuntary, like a gag reflex.
Image via Grammarcomic.com
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.