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The Discrete Charm of Grammar B—Style as/and Invention

Groovy Letter B

Way back in 1980, the year I first taught a writing course, Winston Weathers published An Alternate Style: Options in Composition; in this compact treatise (131 pages, more than half of them given over to examples drawn from literary genres), Weathers advocates for teaching beyond what he calls Grammar A, which privileges linear progression and syllogistic logic, beginning-middle-end order, explicit signposting and transitions, and consistent style and tone confined to a narrow range considered appropriate for genres of academic writing.  He claims that Grammar B has always been welcome in fiction and poetry, featuring ambiguity, flexibility, gaps, and adventurous exploration of the possibilities of language.  Weathers lists the following strategies as integral to Grammar B: the crot, labyrinthine sentences and sentence fragments, lists, double-voice, repetition/repetends/refrains, synchronicity, and collage/montage.  In what follows I explore how we might design classroom invention and revision activities inspired by these Grammar B strategies, particularly for research-based assignments.  (Think of what An Alternate Style offers as a literature-and-creative-writing inflected version of Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar, now in its eighth edition, while a copy of the long out-of-print Weathers book goes for about $300 on Amazon.)

Crot (fragment)—any discrete bit of language can function as a crot; Weathers emphasizes that the crot, or more generally Grammar B’s use of crots as its central unit of meaning, relies on the reader’s ability and openness to creating connection without the writer’s explicit guidance; the reader proceeds through a process of association and accumulation of meaning rather than relying on the writer to provide transitions and signposting that explicitly build a coherent case (instead offering a kind of implicit invitation to engage in shared world-building and meaning-making); an activity related to the crot as the central strategy might ask students to write about moments of insight (without worrying about how the moments connect), catalog quotations that stayed with them (a prompt for the commonplace book assignment), collect representative images, and record just about anything that seems important (even/especially if where it fits isn’t clear); the activity might take the form of map-making or constellation-building and could lead to a translation activity (let’s make this Grammar B material into Grammar A).

Labyrinthine sentences and sentence fragments—activities stemming from these sentence-level Grammar B strategies can expand students’ sense of sentences as settings for exploring the presentation of facts, concepts, and ideas and by extension shaping the readers’ experience of the writing; such an activity can also heighten students’ sense that they can (perhaps should) play with sentences as they engage with and explore facts, concepts, and ideas (we can think of this kind of activity as an analogue to the accordion activity some of us use to help students shape and narrow a topic, though this can work in relation to everything the researcher has discovered or in relation to thesis); the activity might prompt students to write the longest sentence they can, weaving in everything they hope to include in the essay; the labyrinth can also serve as a kind of word journey, with the writer inviting the reader to accompany the writer through the sentence, learning along with the writer; yet another potential benefit in the area of style can derive from using punctuation marks beyond the comma to build the sentence, particularly the semi-colon, dash, and parentheses (see Lewis Thomas’s short essay “Notes on Punctuation” for a playful, Grammar B-ish overview of the possibilities)—this exercise in crafting a portmanteau, all-at-once sentence (or several, one for each section of the projected essay) can work at the other extreme with a fragment activity, asking students to nutshell their thoughts in a few words; if the fragment seems too limited, you could derive versions of this kind of small-canvas activity from the haiku, the six-word short story, or any short genre: Style makes meaning/Substance, not embellishment/Texture, not surface.

Lists—the Works Cited page serves as a list of sources; the annotated bibliography provides a list of sources with commentary.  List invention activities can stem from these familiar forms, for example asking students to develop a list of key details from individual sources or a list collecting key details or quotations from a range of sources (another cousin of the commonplace book).  A list can take the form of a timeline that doesn’t have to conform to chronological order (this looks ahead to synchronicity below and back to all-at-once activities above).  A list can take the form of keywords, synonyms, exploded sentences (make a list of alternate word choices for every noun, verb, adverb, and adjective in a sentence—this can be particularly useful for early versions of a thesis statement), or potential sentences (write a list of as many versions of a sentence as the writer can, playing with structure, emphasis, diction—this too can push writers to come unstuck from an early version of a thesis statement).

Double-voice—the TIC assignment solicits multi-voice compositions; a double-voice invention activity can explore different variations of sources talking to each other.  Drafts might explore the potential for double-voice of the writer trying to manage a complex topic.  For example, Voice One can represent the official version of the draft while Voice Two creates space for the writer to ask questions of the draft, note elements that haven’t yet been included, record alternate versions of sentences, or voice a lack of certainty or lack of satisfaction with what’s there; in other words, Voice Two allows the writer to act as the writer’s first reader and respondent.  In this way Voice Two becomes a guide for revision and also a way for the writer to weave complexity into the next draft.  Another activity utilizing double-voice or multi-voice can ask students to write from a range of perspectives on an issue, avoiding a two-sides or pro/con approach they may know from forensics training or debate club; in this way an invention activity can encourage exploration of varied views and sidestep a formulaic approach to giving the “other side” space.

Repetition/repetends/refrains—we’ve likely all read RBAs with conclusions that repeat language similar to language that first appeared in the introduction, stemming from the directive that a conclusion restates an introduction.  Repetition that hits us as perfunctory doesn’t engage us—what about repetition that strikes us as strategic, with the repetend or refrain landing differently each time, accruing resonance and meaning through the development of the essay?  What might begin as a list of key terms and phrases can lead to an activity experimenting with possible refrains to serve as throughlines, melodic lines, or a chorus threading through the essay.  These refrains can evolve with each new draft as the writer’s sense of key terms and phrases change.  Peer review guidelines might include prompts for readers to suggest potential refrains for the draft to let the writer know something specific about the reader’s experience.  I don’t know whether the songs PWR students listen to still have verses and choruses, but we can invite them to develop a chorus for their essay, a kind of extended refrain they can return to after each section (for the activity, each verse—peer readers can do this too).  Some of you may have had students write their research as song lyrics for the genre/mode assignment in PWR 2.

Synchronicity—managing time, historical context, the relationship of events, and the complexity of bringing sources together pose a substantial array of challenges in the world-building of the RBA.  A synchronicity activity might ask students to engage with the feeling all of us have likely had of the world we’re exploring spilling over the bounds of our capacity to build it within the confines of an essay; some of us might even say to students that a moment (at least one moment if not many) of feeling overwhelmed signals that one has really done the research necessary to build a world.  A prompt might ask students to put together the moments, concepts, quotations, and phrases they’d want their readers to hold in their minds as if they’re happening all at once; as words on a page proceed in a linear fashion, a synchronicity activity, like other Grammar B exercises, can move beyond the boundaries of the page to engage in visual mapping, hinting at the collage.

Collage/montage—we can pair these as strategies of invention, with collage connecting back to synchronicity and lists and even labyrinthine sentences and montage connecting to everything from crots to lists.  What these strategies have in common, perhaps, relates to the need to build a world with moving parts.  Academic writing all too often plods (when students venture that an assigned reading bores them, how often do they mean that “nothing happened” or that everything happened so slowly that they couldn’t focus on the methodical, word-laden world offered by the writer).  Collage and montage invention exercises can take the form of storyboards, cartoon panels, shooting scripts, stage directions, or any other form that puts action and non-linear relationship into the foreground.

I put forward all of these activities as prods for invention as well as ways to highlight the rhetorical aspects of organization and style.  Most RBAs would benefit from the strategic use of Grammar B elements.  Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from Borderlands/La Frontera provides a model of how to combine lived experience, research, reflection, and Grammar B organizational and stylistic features in compelling ways.  You may already use some Grammar B-oriented readings in your classes.  Maybe we should compile a list?

Coda One: Invention as Genre-Busting in the RBA Process

Ask your students what they consider most central to the genre of “academic writing.”  Likely they’ll share qualities that sternly separate academic writing from creative writing, which allows for creativity, self-expression, and a kind of freedom from the constraints that mark academic writing as a school task (something nobody would choose to do if not assigned to do so as part of advancing toward graduation, after which constrained writing will morph into a work task).  We do a lot in our teaching to bring creativity and self-expression to academic writing in general and the RBA in particular.  (In PWR 2 the genre/mode assignment might unintentionally reinforce the separation, though we try to make a point that working across genres develops the writers’ rhetorical versatility and heightens sensitivity to the nuances of genre.)  We don’t limit creativity to the invention stage; we try to keep creativity in play as essential to both invention and revision, working against a linear process that turns revision into tweaking and fixing.  Ideas keep evolving through revision; language becomes a difficult-to-achieve amalgam of clearer, more nuanced, more complex, and more engaging.  No wonder flow remains such a challenge.

Coda Two: Film Genre as Invention in the RBA Process

Consider the genre conventions of the screwball comedy of the 1930’s and early 1940’s (the golden age spanning It Happened One Night through The Palm Beach Story) and the noir era that followed in the 1940’s and 1950’s (another golden era from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity through Touch of Evil).  Screwball comedy generally (generically) concludes with the central couple together (for the first time, or as Stanley Cavell describes in Pursuits of Happiness, a second time through a comedy plot of re-marriage); the other side of the coin, noir, generally (generically) concludes with the central couple or team (sometimes criminal, sometimes law enforcement) torn apart by death.  Screwball as genre dramatizes the potential for at least momentary harmony, or happy rapprochement in the case of the re-marriage variant, while noir as genre confronts us with a bleak vision of human isolation and despair often coupled with pervasive cynicism about the workings of society (despite the presence in many noir stories of a law-enforcing character as emblem of morality and social stability, just as often these characters embody corruption and corrosion of social norms—we get both types in Touch of Evil).  To focus the plotting of the RBA, we might design an activity asking students to tell the story of their research in both genres.  The deliberative, proposal-oriented RBA implicitly suggests screwball comedy, with its belief in the potential for communal action that improves the world constructed in the essay.  The forensic, critique-oriented RBA implicitly suggests noir, making judgments about responsibility for a problem, a crisis, or the state of the world constructed in the essay.  This kind of invention activity creates space for both plot and characters, whether individuals, groups, organizations, corporations, or governments.  Notice how many RBAs move from presenting a noir status quo to proposing a screwball comedy action for future change.


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