By Saga Briggs
Rhythm is inextricably tied to language. The human heartbeat shares a time signature with one of the most universal linguistic patterns known to man, the iambic meter (“Shall-I com-PARE thee-TO a-SUM mer’s-DAY?”). Speechwriters frequently use rhythm to their advantage, hoping to stir listeners with a specific cadence or tempo. Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that music and language engage similar parts of the brain. Even more remarkable, neuroscientists now know rhythm and music are related to grammar in particular, a finding which may have significant implications for those of us looking to hone our writing skills. Imagine, for example, being able to train ourselves to “hear” when a sentence needs a semi-colon by picking up the fiddle. The latest research suggests not only that we can, but that doing so probably comes more naturally to us than diagramming sentences and memorising parts of speech.
Tapping Our Feet to Sentences
For answers to all your burning grammar questions, head to your local iTunes library…
Researchers at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville have found that children with a strong grasp of musical rhythm have a higher capacity for understanding grammar.
In one of the first studies of its kind, the team at Vanderbilt studied 25 typically developing 6-year-olds, first measuring their musical aptitude with a computer game that asked them whether melodies played by cartoon characters were similar or different, then testing their grammar skills with questions about a variety of photographs that were designed to check understanding for past versus present tense. The researchers found that children who did well on one kind tended to do well on the other, regardless of IQ, music experience, and socioeconomic status.
Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., lead author of the study, says the findings make sense when you consider the similarities between speech and music—for example, they each contain rhythm:
“In grammar, children’s minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases, and sentences, and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so. In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat.”
Gordon’s study suggests that those who are better at detecting variations in music timing also appear to be better at detecting variations in speech. But the point of these findings is not to say that some of us are more musically and therefore linguistically inclined than others; it’s to say that everyone may be able to leverage these neural connections to enhance learning.
“Music is a fundamental part of our evolution; we probably sang before we spoke in syntactically guided sentences,” write Jay Schulkin and Greta Raglan in a 2014 article in Frontiers in Neuroscience.
In fact, earlier this year neuroscientists discovered we all use the same part of the brain—the Broca’s area, located under the left temple—to process the structure of both grammar and music.
For the study, lead researcher Richard Kunert asked participants to read several easy and difficult phrases while they listened to a short piece of music. Afterwards, he asked them to judge the “closure,” i.e. the feeling of completeness, of a chord sequence: Did it stop before the end, or had they heard the entire sequence from beginning to end?
Participants judged the music to be less complete while reading grammatically difficult sentences and more complete while reading simple sentences, meaning they couldn’t keep track of the musical rhythm when they had to stop and think about sentence structure.
This was an easy sentence:
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | because | the | surgery | had | not | been | successful.
This sentence distracted them from the music:
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | put | her | hand | on | his | forehead.
Since the first sentence doesn’t need punctuation, participants weren’t tripped up by its structure. The second sentence, though, is missing a comma after “man,” and that’s enough to throw off the rhythm of the reading experience. When they didn’t have a comma to tell them a new thought was coming, the participants were led to read the second sentence this way: “The surgeon consoled the man and the woman,” as in, the surgeon consoled both the man and the woman. The proper reading, which becomes clear by the end of the sentence, is that the surgeon consoled the man and, as a separate event, the woman put her hand on the man’s forehead. But because a comma wasn’t supplied, participants had to spend a second working out the structure of the sentence on their own, which was enough to distract them from the structure of the music. Rhythmically, it’s as though they were still tapping their feet to an old beat because they hadn’t noticed that it changed. A comma signals that change.
This study might create the impression that music and language are at odds with each other, butting heads in the Broca, but it’s actually quite the opposite: We can use data like this to improve writing instruction, which just so happens to be in dire need of reform.
Digging a Grave For the Subordinate Clause
Here’s a thought: Grammar is boring because rules are boring. Here’s another: Rules have no inherent instructional value.
“A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorising parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers,” says Michelle Navarre Cleary, associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. “Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work.”
One problem with the old-fashioned method is that it’s hopelessly, uselessly, preoccupied with nomenclature.
“The purpose of learning grammar is to produce well-formed sentences, but mastering the Latinate content of traditional grammar instruction has little to do with achieving this goal,” says Steve Peha, President of Teaching That Makes Sense.
In his own instruction, Peha is a bit of a renegade grammarist, choosing to describe sentences with “simple English words, not unfamiliar Latin words.” Instead of “main clause,” he talks to his students about the “main parts” of a sentence; instead of “adverbial phrase” or “adjectival phrase,” he discusses the “lead-in parts”; rather than identifying “non-restrictive clauses” or “subordination,” Peha points to “in-between parts”; instead of “compound/complex sentences” and “appositive constructions,” he favours “add-on parts.”
Let’s be real. Not only do Latinate terms immediately shed all communicative relevance and authority once we step outside the classroom; they actually hinder effective learning by distracting us with labels that don’t help us understand the rules they’re meant to describe.
“Grammar isn’t about linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language,” says Misty Adoniou, Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy, and TESL at the University of Canberra. “Grammar is how we organise our words and sentences to communicate with others and to express ourselves.”
Adoniou says making students spend hours circling adjectives, verbs, and nouns in workbooks not only drains their enthusiasm for writing but also undermines the instructional purpose of the whole experience: “These workbooks are the epitome of bad writing, writing that serves no expressive or communicative purpose.”
We can’t teach grammar in a vacuum; clear communication demands context.
Another problem with the old-fashioned way is that it places more emphasis on the “rules” of communication than on communication itself. The rules of grammar are not part of some infallible natural law unearthed by a physicist with a swinging pendulum. They’re an attempt to organise language, and sometimes that attempt fails, or fails to serve a specific purpose. This is why we frequently run into what look like exceptions to the rules of grammar in highly regarded works of literature.
In a 2008 interview, Cormac McCarthy explained his sparing use of punctuation this way: “There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” McCarthy learned to write the way he does in a college English class, where he worked to simplify 18th century essays for a textbook the professor was editing. Early modern English is notoriously cluttered with confounding punctuation, he says, which did not become standardised until comparatively recently.
It’s only natural that, in a field committed to expressing the inexpressible, practitioners are going to find some rules limiting and/or irrelevant.
Grammar is a creative tool, like music. To treat it any other way—to present it as a rigid mould into which students must fit their writing—is to invite resistance to a profoundly useful skill. It’s time for a fresh approach. Rhythm can help.
How to Teach Grammar Through Rhythm
I’m going to explore a few basic rules that cause people the most confusion but parade as common knowledge. As we’ll see, rhythm can help explain them all.
Commas, Semi-colons, & Dashes
Just as you can learn to anticipate the rhythmic structure of a song, you can develop an ear for the way commas, semi-colons, and dashes function together in the same sentence or paragraph. Here’s a passage that uses all three punctuation marks, from Loitering, an essay collection by Charles D’Ambrosio:
“He was an emphatic person the way other people are tenors or baritones, and because I had the window seat and felt trapped I began to get buggy. Everything he said stuck to my skin. He asked a lot of questions that were aggressive and blunt and designed to elicit or provoke simple yes or no answers. It wasn’t a conversation; he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it. I kept wondering—strangely—if he was an avocat; I mean I wondered if he was a lawyer, using the French word in my head. All three hours of the flight I felt like I’d been locked away in an interrogation room.”
Let’s see how each form of punctuation operates in turn.
Read this sentence:
“He was an emphatic person the way other people are tenors or baritones, and because I had the window seat and felt trapped I began to get buggy.”
Now read it without punctuation:
“He was an emphatic person the way other people are tenors or baritones and because I had the window seat and felt trapped I began to get buggy.”
It’s the same problem Kunert’s study participants had. If we don’t have the comma to tell us a new thought is coming, here’s what we might mistakenly expect once we reach the word “because”:
“He was an emphatic person the way other people are tenors or baritones and because [he’d been raised that way].”
We are led to believe that “because” is part of the same thought rather than a new thought, that the writer is about to explain why the subject was an emphatic person (because X).
Still tapping our feet to the same old beat…
Other times, commas can be unnecessary and distracting. In an earlier essay from the same book, the author, short on resources during a camping trip, fills his hat with kibble, then with water, for his dog:
“The waxed cotton holds water nearly as well as it repels it and she laps up a cool hatful after eating.”
We’re told in school that commas belong before “coordinating conjunctions” (and, but, or, etc.), but that’s not always the case. According to the traditional rule, D’Ambrosio should have placed a comma before “and she laps,” but he didn’t because he didn’t need to. It’s part of the same thought, the same beat. In leaving it out, it’s as though he’s saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t make you slow down with a comma simply to tell you the dog drank the water; it’s just a nice detail to tack on.” If you can get the message across clearly without a comma, don’t risk interrupting your reader’s flow.
When we see a semi-colon, we know that the main point has already been made; the information that follows is of secondary importance. Semantically, it’s like a reverse-heartbeat: BUH-buhm. Take this sentence:
“It wasn’t a conversation; he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it.”
The main point (BUH) is that it wasn’t a conversation. The extra information, the way in which it wasn’t a conversation (buhm), follows.
Alternatively, here’s how it reads with a comma:
“It wasn’t a conversation, he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it.”
Technically, this version is wrong because it’s a comma splice. One might argue that the sentence can be understood anyway—people use comma splice sentences all the time, especially when they’re in a hurry, and suffer no great loss of communication—but it’s actually harder on the brain to read it this way because we can’t organise its content as efficiently. Without a semi-colon, we’re forced to approach each part of the sentence, each string of words between the commas, as though it contains information of equal importance (buhm-buhm-buhm). Since the most important part of the sentence is actually “It wasn’t a conversation,” and the other parts just elaborate on this point, we have to suss out the hierarchy of meaning on our own, as we go. Doing so demands more of our attention, even if it’s just a second’s worth. The argument against comma splice sentences, then, is that they slow us down (which is ironic considering the fact that writers resort to them to speed up the writing process). The semi-colon gives us a head’s up on the information to follow, thereby supporting the rhythm of the reading experience.
When you want to insert peripheral information into a sentence, you have three main options, listed in order of descending importance of said information: a set of commas, a set of dashes, or parentheses. Commas mean you can take a quick breath; dashes mean you can stretch your legs; parentheses mean you can leave the room and make tea.
Here’s what I mean:
“The drugs that loosened his nerves and made the big bad outside world navigable also made him a sloppy driver, weaving lackadaisically around the highway, and wherever we were going—California, Vancouver—would seem very far away. Invariably, our crappy car would catch fire on steep grades (my sister’s job was to douse the transmission hump with water when she saw the carpet fibers smoldering), plus with seven kids, all piled on top of each other, somebody was always carsick and ralphing in the backseat.”
The peripheral information in the first sentence is “weaving lackadaisically around the highway” and “California, Vancouver.” The former is too important, too illustrative, to isolate with dashes or parentheses; the latter is a blip of information, barely necessary. In the second sentence, the peripheral information is the part about the sister within parentheses and the phrase “all piled on top of each other.” The part about the sister is so disconnected from the main rhythm of the sentence that it needs its own contained space to stretch out in. On the other hand, the phrase “all piled on top of each other” is, like “weaving lackadaisically around the highway,” too semantically integral and syntactically unimposing to require more than a couple of commas.
The other kind of dash, a single dash, generates a hard beat. It stresses, even dramatises, what comes after it. It’s a buh-BUHM. Elaboration with emphasis. If you’re going to use one, be sure you’re as intentional about it as you would be a dramatic pause in speech:
“His replies were long—seven, eight, nine pages.”
The real rhythmic beauty of the single dash, exemplified above, is that you don’t have to follow it with a complete sentence. You’re allowed to run out of breath, include an unplanned thought, continue creating. It’s liberating. I love the single dash.
The following is a great example of how all three punctuation marks—commas, semi-colons, and dashes—can work together in the same sentence:
“I kept wondering—strangely—if he was an avocat; I mean I wondered if he was a lawyer, using the French word in my head.”
That’s a beautiful sentence, a sentence to aspire to. If you can properly craft a sentence like that one, you can call yourself a maestro of the page.
Finally, a few points on rhythm from the eternally sage grammarist Joseph Williams:
1. “When we get close to the end of a sentence, we expect words that deserve stress, so we may feel a sentence is anticlimactic if it ends on words of slight grammatical or semantic weight… The rhythm of a sentence should carry readers toward strength.”
Weak rhythm: Studying intellectual differences among races is a project that only the most politically naive psychologist is willing to give support to.
Strong rhythm: Studying intellectual differences among races is a project that only the most politically naive scientist is willing to support.
2. “How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace.”
Weak rhythm: A company that focuses on hiring the best personnel and then trains them not just for the work they are hired to do but for higher-level jobs is likely to earn the loyalty of its employees.
Strong rhythm: When a company focuses on hiring the best personnel and then trains them not just for the work they are hired to do but for higher-level jobs later, it is likely to earn the loyalty of its employees.
3. “What most makes a sentence graceful is a balance and symmetry among its parts, one echoing another in sound, rhythm, structure, and meaning.”
Weak rhythm: Unless all the citizens of a state are habitually forced by necessary circumstances to compromise in a way that lets them affect policy with no one dominating it, freedom cannot be maintained.
Strong rhythm: Unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstance to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.
4. “You usually create the most rhythmical balance when the first element in a balance is shorter than the next ones.”
Weak rhythm: We should devote a few final words to a matter that reaches beyond the techniques of research to the connections between those subjective values that reflect our deepest ethical choices and objective research.
Strong rhythm: We should devote a few final words to a matter that reaches beyond the techniques of research to the connections between objective research and those subjective values that reflect our deepest ethical choices.
The “rules” of grammar aren’t rules at all. They’re creative tools for organising and presenting our thoughts, for giving structure to what we mean and giving meaning to the form. You can hear them, feel them, just like the beat in a song. Let’s allow ourselves, then, to tune in and write on.