A Feeling for Language

Every so often, I read a book that reminds me it’s possible to get the basics right and still turn out something genuinely crappy. I just finished one that, as usual, was highly rated and enthusiastically reviewed on Goodreads. It’s also been mentioned and recommended in other places. So, what do you think? It drove me crazy all the way through because it’s so badly written. It’s not the grammar or the spelling, or even the punctuation, which are mostly fine. But partway through, I had one of those moments. I realized that there are things that aren’t as easily taught, or learned, as grammar and spelling. Maybe they’re not teachable at all, at least in the normal sense. So here’s this book that tells a good story, has few obvious problems of the kind that you’d look for in editing, but doesn’t reach the level that distinguishes mediocre writing from excellent writing.

For a lot of people, it would seem to be a matter of style, but that’s not it. Styles vary, but they still rest on a foundation of an understanding of language and, more important, an ear for language. A book like the one I just read reminds me of some of the compositions that my husband’s high school students would turn in. They were written by students who could diagram a sentence perfectly. They could even write grammatically correct sentences. But their writing was ugly, stumbling, awkward, and even confusing.

What it comes down to is that you can learn the rules, but if you don’t have a feeling for language, your work is going to be ugly, stumbling, and awkward. A good editor will recognize the problems and, if you’re very lucky, will correct them for you. If you’re not lucky, he/she will point them out and leave you to it. And you will fail miserably. Why? Because this is an area where the ear is the judge, and if you don’t have the ear, your knowledge of the rules isn’t going to help. Because developing an ear for language is a slow process that involves having read and absorbed well-written language from hundreds or thousands of books, over many years.

If you don’t have that ear, this is a good time to be writing. Why? Because most readers also lack it and are interested only in the story and the emotions it evokes. If you care about the flow of language and how it can enrich or impede a story, but don’t yet have the ear, you have your work cut out for you. There’s nothing to memorize. All you have to do is listen.



13 thoughts on “A Feeling for Language

    1. I knew someone would ask that. I did review the book, but had to think long and hard about it first. I dislike reaming authors, and prefer to review and rate books that I’m willing to recommend. What I may do, rather than name the book here, is write another post with examples taken from the book.

    1. I don’t read mine out loud, but I do hear it as I read. Same with other books.

      By the way, you must have changed something in your address that made your comment go to the spam folder.

  1. ‘An ear’ might also be talent. Some have it, some don’t. Whether we have it or not, you’re right in that reading is the way to improve. (Although reading other badly written books probably won’t help.)
    Sadly, I can’t finish a book with stumbling, clumsy language, no matter how compelling the story. It’s too much like a visit to the dentist.
    Good post.

    1. Cynthia, I meant to mention talent, but even a natural talent has to be developed. And there’s a difference between being able to hear the flow of language and being able to translate it to the printed page.

  2. I agree, I think some people do have a particular sensitivity to language, probably a mixture of acquired and innate so that they will only enjoy good writing, whereas others, even intelligent, educated people will quite happily read atrociously written stuff, saying that they are interested in what is happening and the characters and don’t care how it’s written. The words are simply a means of conveying information rather than an aesthetic pleasure (or pain) in their own right.

    1. Very probably, that’s always been true. We have greater literacy than in past centuries, but I doubt that the average reader was ever interested in the language itself. Also very probably, writers who care about language are going to limit their appeal, unless they can also write cracking good stories.

  3. There are a good many books I’ve read (I read a lot!) that just don’t make it for me. I make a rule to always finish each of them, but it sometimes takes quite awhile.
    What always surprised me is how people will go on and on about a book I just cannot get into. For example, I’ve tried Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” any number of times because people say how good it is, and it just isn’t. Not for me, anyway.
    Of late I’ve been listening to a masterful recording of Stephen King’s “11.22.63”. Many reviewers have said it is not up to his normal quality, and some say worse. Perhaps it is because of the wonderful recording, but I have found everything I like in a book in this one. A character (several) that I care about. Moments that make me go misty. Twists, turns, and wonder.
    11.22.63 is a 849 pages long (not all that massive for a King book) and I’ve enjoyed every page.
    I wonder if one component that we must admit to in our review of books is “personal taste”.
    Suppose Pynchon’s book isn’t just a complex joke played upon readers, or David Foster Wallace really had something useful to say, and it just wasn’t something I cared for?
    I love a challenging book, I love long books, but I get angry when the writer is just showing off.

    1. There may very well be a point where we’re not capable of accurately judging an author’s use of language, if we just don’t like the book. If I book that I don’t like is a quick read, I’ll usually finish it. Otherwise, I’m not going to waste my time. I have too little reading time, as it is, and my TBR stack just keeps growing. I’m somewhat conservative about style, so if a book is very experimental, I may not be able to stick with it. I tried Pynchon and couldn’t deal with him. Haven’t read Wallace and haven’t kept up with King. I’ll have to read up on 11.22.63 and see if it’s something I want to try. (Just checked on Amazon. Not at those prices.)

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