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A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part Five: Logic

To write coherently, we most obviously rely on grammar, whose governance strings of words require to be called sentences. Grammar guides writers and readers alike; for example, if a particular textual unit of yours has gone awry, returning to the question, who does what to whom?, can shift the essence of your thought back into focus. (1)


But grammatical compliance is only one piece of the puzzle. The man ran under the sea, for instance, seems to make sense grammatically but defies reason. Grammar usually provides fixed rules, distinguishing between right and wrong, but writing logical English goes beyond simply understanding these regulations.


Logic. Type the word into Google and you first encounter an American rapper. Luckily, the OED is a little more helpful. “Logic”, from Greek, via the Latin logicus, is “the branch of philosophy that treats […] thinking in general, and more especially of inference and of scientific method.”(2) Logicus receives its own summary: “pertaining to reasoning”.


Thinking, inference, scientific, reasoning: how might we relate these words to writing? After all, this is our interest, not skirting down a philosophical rabbit hole. At first glance, finding commonality is not so straightforward. For instance, Wordsworth sets thinking at odds with poetry, which is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. (3)


Likewise, the rationality associated with science, with its patterns and formulae, must be the obverse of the art of writing. This idea is not limited to “romantics” like Wordsworth (4). In Orwell’s, “Politics and the English Language”, cited in an earlier post, he abjures “hackneyed” turns of phrase; for him too, English is imagination, not imitation.


And yet, to recognise the relevance of inspiration and creativity to writing is not to deny careful contemplation its place. Indeed, an effort of self-presentation does not dispel the reality that Wordsworth himself was a meticulous revisionist. If even the most gifted writers require such mental application, a logical approach becomes crucial for the rest of us.


On top of this, Orwell’s primary encouragement in his essay is actually for us to critically reflect on our sentences; when we write, the self-enquiry, “what am I trying to say?”, should remain at the forefront of our considerations. In this respect, to write is to simultaneously interrogate the words you have written, the sort of robust screening associated with scientific investigation.


Writing logically, then, is not about writing without imagination but rather successfully conveying your train of thought to a reader. The reader perceives your reasoning and inference, just as a scientific treatise provides transparency by delineating cause and effect, logically progressing from hypothesis to experiment, results to conclusion.


Logical inconsistencies arise when our thoughts are unclear and unorganised. When you don’t quite know what you want to say, it becomes difficult to try and say it. In these situations, writing down your ideas, as an attempt to disentangle them, is often practical. However, without subsequent rewriting and rumination, only the initial, confused pattern of thought remains, which makes things difficult for your reader.


One of the keys to establishing logic within your writing is the use of fluid and effective transitions. Up until now, I’ve mainly described the suitability of a logical written approach. Transitions are a more tangible focus. A kind of scoliosis afflicts the logical spine of your work when sentences don’t naturally follow on from one another. These connecting words are an effective means of preventing this affliction.


To move smoothly from one sentence to the next, there are various tools at your disposal, such as conjuncts, also known as conjunctive adverbs. Conjuncts are not grammatically necessary but signpost texts, guiding the reader towards the final destination you have planned for them.


The conjunctive adverb spares your reader interpretative effort: you want to improve your written English; thus, you are reading this blog (5). Simple conjunctions, such as because, and prepositions, such as due to, should also be deployed to indicate relationships between ideas.


Cogito, ergo sum or, “I think, therefore I am”; Descartes’ declaration, aside from its philosophical implication, is perhaps the most famous example of logic’s efficacy, the spirit of which is contained in “ergo” or “therefore”. Transitions, however, do not merely link action and consequence. You might need to compare, similarly or likewise; conversely, you might need to contrast. In short, you should aim to employ effective transitions in your writing, for these act as a logical linchpin, around which the wheel of your writing will happily and easily revolve.


*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!

Postscript

If you were disappointed by the limited attention paid to the actual deployment of transition words, I offer you recompense, in the form of the following recommendation: take the time to visit the Wikipedia page on transition words. It might even be helpful to have it open for consultation when you next write (6).


Notes

1) Subject-verb-object being the basic sentence structure in English.

2) See “logic” n., sense 1a, OED Online (first published 1903, accessed 23/07/2020).


3) See his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.


4) The German writer, Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, known, apparently for good reason, as Novalis for short, echoes the sentiment of Wordsworth in his poem, Wenn nicht mehr Zahlen und Figuren, another brief but telling insight into the construction of the “romantic” ideal; a good English translation can be found here: https://www.lieder.net/get_text.html?TextId=106976, accessed 16/08/2020.


5) “You want to improve your written English; you are reading this blog” – without the conjunct, it is only implied that the reason you are reading this blog is your interest in improving your written English.


6) For the Wikipedia sceptics, I acknowledge that we should verify the provenance of Wikipedia articles, as with all information we consume: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transition_(linguistics)#Transition_words_of_agreement,_addition,_or_similarity.


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