I've been semi-lurking here for a while and I thought I'd come in with a bit of flame-bait...
Does 'good' syntax really matter? I've seen discussion here about Truss, for example, which got rather pedantic about an 'only' that was placed somewhere it shouldn't, and it occurs to me that it's very easy to become rather obsessive about 'correct' grammar. So I suppose my question is: what's more important, syntax or semantics?
Of course I understand that clearly thought-through grammar is important to make meaning clear and resolve potential ambiguity. But as a writer, I like to have the freedom to structure a sentence more liberally. I used to be an actor, and I am always very aware of the spoken pattern of the words I'm writing, and for me this takes precedence over 'correct' punctuation or other grammar. As an example, I had an interesting discussion not so long ago about the 'rhetorical' question mark, as in 'It's a nice day, isn't it?', in which almost everyone else insisted the question mark was the only correct punctuation, but where I was convinced that a full stop is more true to the speech pattern.
I'm by no means advocating a complete free-for-all in written text - after all, spoken language is full of grammatical structure - just questioning the value of proscriptive rules. And given that my education was in mathematics, I'm probably more logically-minded than the average person, so I can be one hell of a pedant too...
Danny

Try the TimeHunt Christmas CrossCube at
http://www.timehunt.com/xmas2003.html
1 2 3 4 5 6
I've been semi-lurking here for a while and I thought I'd come in with a bit of flame-bait... Does 'good' ... mathematics, I'm probably more logically-minded than the average person, so I can be one hell of a pedant too... Danny

I'm also primarily a writer, and I think you're generally correct. Punctuation and grammar take a back seat when matters of meaning, rhythm, sound, and flow are involved.

But and it's a big one I tend to be a nag about correct grammar, usage, and punctuation because I see flaws in those things causing horrendous problems all the time. Following the rules is vital, unless there's a good reason to break them. For one thing, bad grammar on the page breaks up rhythm and flow most of the time. Punctuation is a singularly important tool, and bad punctuation can have the same effect. Bad usage is disastrous, for people who use the wrong word simply fail to say what they want to say.
As for your sentence 'It's a nice day, isn't it? which mark you use changes the meaning and the sound of the sentence. A question mark makes the inflection rise, and indicates that the questioner is looking for information. A full stop doesn't seem right to me, either. When the speaker is simply stating a fact and expecting agreement, the inflection does not rise, so the question mark doesn't work. But what I hear isn't a full stop, either. Frankly, I don't know a good way to punctuate in the last case, so I wouldn't use that sentence in dialogue in a story or novel. I might in a script, but then I'd add a note on how to say it.
Sometimes you can't win.
Carter Jefferson
http://carterj.homestead.com /
(snip)
I used to be an actor, and I am always very aware of the spoken pattern of the words I'm ... the only correct punctuation, but where I was convinced that a full stop is more true to the speech pattern.

I think I'd distinguish the 'rhetorical' falling stress from a genuine negative question by using an exclamation point rather than a period. Likewise for the 'sarcastic' variant, e.g. "Aren't you the saint!"

Odysseus
Teachers: We supply a list of EFL job vacancies
Does 'good' syntax really matter? I've seen discussion here about Truss, for example, which got rather pedantic about an 'only' ... easy to become rather obsessive about 'correct' grammar. So I suppose my question is: what's more important, syntax or semantics?

This is a false question. Both are of great importance. It is an error to suppose that one is important while the other is peripheral.

After all, you can get semantics across by writing "Me Tarzan, you Jane", but writing in this fashion is very unwise.
Of course I understand that clearly thought-through grammar is important to make meaning clear and resolve potential ambiguity. But as ... the spoken pattern of the words I'm writing, and for me this takes precedence over 'correct' punctuation or other grammar.

I think it's a big mistake to suppose that written English is merely a transcription of spoken English. It isn't. If you try to write merely by transcribing your ordinary speech, you will produce some truly awful writing.
Written English is something very different from spoken English, and it has its own structures, requirements and conventions. Modeling writing on speech is no more sensible than modeling speech on writing.

Larry Trask
Castiglione contends that "writing is a kind of speech." I think that it would depend on your audience. Some writing and speaking are lost on some audiences. In the main, however, I agree that grammar considerations will very often stifle good writing, especially with students.

Hank
I think it's a big mistake to suppose that written English is merely a transcription of spoken English. It isn't. If you try to write merely by transcribing your ordinary speech, you will produce some truly awful writing.

It depends on what you mean by "ordinary speech", and how clear and precise that is with any given person.
Written English is something very different from spoken English, and it has its own structures, requirements and conventions. Modeling writing on speech is no more sensible than modeling speech on writing.

As the post after yours suggests, it depends entirely on your audience and the ability of the speaker or writer. I spent 15 years occasionally running, or speaking on, seminars for international audiences whose understanding of English was sometimes so varied that we had to use simultaneous translation to UN standards. The English that I used on those was far simpler than that which I use in English newsgroups, but it has to be done with skill, for a foreigner can tell when you are talking down to him, and resent it.I write pretty much as I speak, and I do not modify my speech to suit the audience if I'm speaking to native English users. It used to lead to some slight confusion sometimes with idioms in American bars and hotels, or with ESL people who had learned their English from American sources, but seldom with an educated American audience. I suspect that if one tries to be too scholarly in writing, when one is not clever enough to do it in speech at the drop of a hat in front of an audience, the phoniness will show through.

I've met many people whose writing skills were excellent, but who clammed up in front of an audience of strangers, and far, far more people who could talk the hind legs off a donkey but who could not write even a simple business letter. If they had simply tried writing a first draft just as they spoke, and then editing it, they would probably have made a fair job of it.

wrmst rgrds
Robin Bignall
Quiet part of Hertfordshire
England
Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
Castiglione contends that "writing is a kind of speech." I think that it would depend on your audience. Some writing and speaking are lost on some audiences. In the main, however, I agree that grammar considerations will very often stifle good writing, especially with students.

I have more than 30 years of experience with students, and I find this last statement astonishing.
I don't think I've ever encountered a student whose writing was impeded by a knowledge of grammar. The common problem is an inadequate command of grammatical conventions and of the proper use of words.
Larry Trask
Castiglione contends that "writing is a kind of speech." I ... considerations will very often stifle good writing, especially with students.

I have more than 30 years of experience with students, and I find this last statement astonishing. I don't think ... knowledge of grammar. The common problem is an inadequate command of grammatical conventions and of the proper use of words.

If creativity is part of what you mean by good writing , then I can confirm that at least having a better grasp of grammar than ever before has somehow for the lack of an appropriate word weakened my writing ability. Somewhat.
Or maybe, I could, very likely, be suffering from writer's block. But I know without a doubt that it happened after I started taking grammar seriously.

Ayaz Ahmed Khan
Yours Forever in,
Cyberspace.
http://adic.netfirms.com/fastce/home.html
That is very true. Most students are inadequate in their command of and use of grammar. This inadequacy makes them so fearful that they are not able to present ideas for fear of being "caught" in a mistake. Surely in 30 years or so you have seen this happen.
Hank
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
Show more