It’s not personal, it’s family: Kin, strangers, guests, and the complexity of social obligation


Brooks on the alternatives to nuclear family

Tyler Cowen called the extended essay by David Brooks called ‘The nuclear family was a mistake’ a “so far the best essay of the year with many fine and subtle points”. And he’s not wrong. Brooks who has frequently been caught embellishing data to make a point does a very good job with his sources. And most importantly he transcends his natural middle-of-the-road conservative leanings to modify his views to fit the data rather than the other way around.

His portrayal of the current social environment is well worth reading and rereading:

“If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.”

But he avoids and indeed criticises the conservative instinct to demand a return to the traditional family:

“Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning. Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; “go live in a nuclear family” is really not relevant advice.”

And he also points out the deficiencies in the liberal response:

“Progressives, meanwhile, still talk like self-expressive individualists of the 1970s: People should have the freedom to pick whatever family form works for them. And, of course, they should. But many of the new family forms do not work well for most people—and while progressive elites say that all family structures are fine, their own behavior suggests that they believe otherwise.”

His summary feels very apt to the situation (although it is important to note, that there are many progressive thinkers who are much closer to his ideas than he admits):

“while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental”

Brooks also very aptly formulates the current state as a paradox:

“Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible.”

In fact, the solution he proposes, created, forged families – a redefinition of kin, is more socially progressive than conservative.

“This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin. It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”

This is an essentially progressive vision tinged with a fair bit of the conservative communitarian nostalgia. It is the same nostalgia for the imaginary of togetherness that drove ‘Bowling alone’ to such popularity 20 years ago. It is neither venal, moralistic, nor unrealistic. Brooks is merely describing what exists and has always existed in one way or another. He then takes a turn reminiscent of Margaret Mead and says, let’s make that the new normal. And he seems to find the sweet spot that has the potential of becoming a meeting point for the utopian imaginaries of both conservatives and progressives.

What Brooks leaves out are the limits of these family-like structures when it comes to dealing with those outside them. And unsurprisingly he also fails to mention the possible role the state can and perhaps must play in tying them together.

Brooks does an admirable job of engaging with the anthropological literature. He does not just insert the obligatory James C Scott reference so beloved of certain kind of libertarian thinker, he reads more widely and more deeply. But, as always, there’s more. Here I’d like to bring in some more anthropological perspectives to enrich and somewhat complicate Brooks’ vision. This is not to negate what he says or dismiss it as erroneous. All I’m trying to do is expand the picture slightly.

Kin, guests and strangers: From baseline communism to complex webs of social obligation

The one anthropologist he does not mention is David Graeber. Graeber called the kind of mutuality Brooks is after ‘baseline communism’. When communism is defined as ‘to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities’ it is often decried as unworkable because it ignores human proclivities for cheating. But, in fact, as Graeber points out, it describes perfectly one very familiar environment: the family. Communism is not a question of property, it’s a question of obligation from one to the many and the many to the one. This always exists on some sort of spectrum. As Graeber describes, there’s never complete abandonment of private property (even in the most egalitarian societies, there are some things people can call their own), nor complete abandonment of supporting people’s needs (even hard-nosed captains of industry will give each other breaks under certain conditions).

This obligation is unconditional but it is also constrained. To help us understand the constraints, we could simplify the sources of obligation by dividing the social world into three classes: ‘kin’, ‘guests’, and ‘strangers’. Kin and strangers are mostly stable categories whereas ‘guests’ are inherently dynamic and transient. ‘Guest’ is a stranger who becomes temporary ‘kin’ in the sense that the obligations for ensuring the wellbeing of ‘kin’ transfer to them on a limited basis but often in a ‘lavish’ manner. One of the inventions of the ‘post-industrial world’ is our ability to deal with ‘strangers’ without having to confer kin-like privileges on them. The ability to associate and collaborate with strangers who are not your guests is what made industrial capitalism as we know it possible.

But it is also what makes socialism possible. Once the complex webs of mutual support through extended kin networks have been torn up, the state can step in and substitute for this obligation. When many progressives talk about the duty of care of the state (or smaller collectives), they essentially claim this sort of familial role for the state. Conservatives, on the other hand, view the state more as a meeting ground for groups of strangers. For them, the state as such should have no power to treat anyone as guests.

This tension is present even in socialist-leaning countries such as Sweden or Germany which are willing to provide for their citizens – who are otherwise strangers to each other – some of the kind of support traditionally reserved for kin. They are also willing to provide hospitality to new arrivals but very much as guests. What they are struggling with is the process of conferring the kin-status on these guests.

Brooks mentions how many captives of the Native American nations in the 1700s did not want to return back to the ‘civilised’ world from which they were taken. But he omits to mention that these groups often had elaborate ways of transferring strangers from captives to guests to kin. Be it through marriage or adoption, even enslaved war captives could (sometimes enmasse) made into ‘one of us’. Japan, for instance, still widely practices ‘adult adoption’ which was also very common in Ancient Rome and is one of the ways of achieving this that is not available to the state.

Brooks talks about what was lost and he is not wrong. He is also not blind to the fact that the support the kin networks provided was often opperessive and frequently rested disproportionately on women. But he still perceives it from the perspective of a homestead – he talks about the individual groups as if they floated in a vaccuum.

This is where Brooks would have benefited from engaing with another precursor of his thinking Karl Polanyi. Polanyi critiqued our view of the industrial revolution as merely a matter of technology plus capital. He wrote his magnum opus ‘The Great Transformation’ over 80 years ago – long before the 1950s ushered in the nuclear family revolution Brooks blames on current ills. Polanyi traces the problem much further back to the needs of early industrial capitalism. And he also relies on the ethnography of his day to contrast the ‘mutual support’ of traditional societies with the manufactured individualism of the industrial age.

The emotional pull of the ‘mutuality of being’: For good or for ill

Polanyi does not dwell on the emotional aspects of the material support networks but the nostalgia is clearly there. Brooks, on the other hand, can’t get over the emotional impact of personally experiencing being a member of the kind of group of mutual support that he proposes. And he is not wrong to point out the strong emotional pull of the mutuality of the neighbourhood. Nobody does it better than 2PAC when he sings about the feelings of returning to his old problematic neighborhood in ‘My Block’.

My neighborhood ain’t the same
Cause all these little babies goin crazy and they sufferin in the game
And I swear it’s like a trap
But I ain’t given up on the hood it’s all good when I go back
Hoes show me love, niggaz give me props
Forever hop cause it don’t stop… on my block

and talking about what it’s like being away:

In my heart, I felt alone out here on my own
I close my eyes and picture home… on my block

Brooks quotes ethnographers such as Marshall Sahlins and Monica Wilson on the ineffable nature of the connection within kin groups. People in them experience “a mutuality of being” (Sahlins) and are almost ‘mystically dependent’ (Wilson) on one another. This is easy to overlook in more institutionally focused accounts of ‘kinship’, so Brooks is right to emphasize it but it’s not all there is.

The emotional support mutuality provides is well known and is present even in situations where it is harmful to the individuals. In describing a materially and, by his account, mentally and socially deprived society in a remote Apalchian community, Robert Edgerton, reports:

Despite the absence of any kind of ritual, ceremony, or community-wide activities, these people were fiercely loyal to their hollow and their way of life. Even those few who could emigrate, like a boy Gazaway took away from the hollow for a brief period of schooling, preferred to remain in Duddie’s Branch. They could also express great love for members of their families, and even for an outsider like Gazaway. They had pride, dignity, courage, and generosity.

The affective power of the nearly mystical ‘mutuality of being’ can exert a strong attractive force on a reader who is not enmeshed in such strong ties. This makes it easy to forget, that tightly-knit communities are not always idylic:

“some small-scale populations do not effectively solve the problems they face, and sometimes the very culture that should sustain them and enhance their well-being instead produces fear, apathy, isolation, and degradation.” from Sick Societies by Robert Edgerton

Edgerton also has an agenda of his own but his account is an important antidote to the opiate of anthropological utopia.

My main point is that while the emotional impact of mutuality is substantial, it alone is not enough to account for all the elements that we see in the tripartite ‘kin/guest/strager’ distinction. And neither are social norms as traditionally conceived; viz norms being the combination of unwritten rules, explicit laws, and various forms of enforcement. It is instead a cognitive perception of how the world is. It’s not that people fulfil obligations because of fear of sanctions. It’s because they cannot imagine not doing so. It is simply against a very basic fabric of their being.

It’s not personal, it’s family: Ties that moor us and bind us

I spent six month working on projects in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, where people frequently don’t have enough food during certain times of the year. Yet, there is almost no homelessness and festivals are common even in the poor areas. How can this be? The answer is extended family. The Timorese large family networks provide material and emotional support for all their members.

But this also makes working on projects quite difficult. The Timorese are no less intelligent or competent than any other people I’ve worked with. But their family always comes first. We’re not talking just about sick children or bereavements but also festivals and other family gatherings – which are not infrequent. Combined with what often seems like a sudden appearance of these events, running projects when a key staff member can disappear at a moment’s notice is often a frustrating experience.

And it’s not even that the person wants ‘go to a fun party’ instead of doing ‘dull work’. Often attending such events can be both emotionally and materially draining. Resisting the pull of the social obligation is like resisting gravity. Sometimes it keeps us grounded, sometimes it throws us flat on our face. To help my non-Timorese colleagues conceptualise this better, I came up with the mantra: “it’s not personal, it’s family”. In the same way that the American “it’s not personal, it’s business” is used to explain or excuse behavior against the norms of sociability, so can the Timorese “it’s not personal, it’s family” be helpful to understand the sort of behavior that the individualistic mindset perceives as a breach of contract.

This, of course, is not unique to Timor-Leste, nor is it unknown in the cross-cultural literature. These family networks can also be harnessed to economic benefit in the capitalist system. Many of the successes of the East and South East Asian diasporas around the world are due in large part to their ability to harness the mutuality of support across long distances. A small enterprise that can rely on the virtually free labor and trustworthy sources of credit or supplies provided by kin has a larger chance of success, particularly is the boundary between the work and personal life is very flexible. And the kin can expect mutual support back – extending across the globe through remittances and other forms of support. Not based on a simply return-on-investment calculus but on bonds unconditional mutuality.

But these same networks often do not work as well when it comes to economic production in environments where there are not enough strangers to work as a buffer. The same Cambodian or Vietnamese entrepreneurs who are successful in California or the Czech Republic struggle to achieve the same success in their home environment. This is not because they are any less industrious or surrounded by sloth when at home. It is because it is harder to escape the totality of obligations up close.

James C Scott observed that small shopkeepers in many parts of the world are often strangers (often of different ethnic or linguistic origin) who are not tied to local structures of kindship and obligation. It is impossible to run a small shop if it is impossible to refuse to simply give food to people with whom you have a strong bond. This is certainly true in Timor-Leste where many of the small local enterprises struggle.

This is common around the world, so much so that many of the small loan arrangements that have become popular in the development area function less as a way of advancing capital and more as a way of putting capital out of reach of kinship obligations. As another exmple, Leo Howe reports that many of the people working in the hospitality industry in Bali are actually Javanese because the native Balinese cannot be relied on to be always available. This is not because they are ‘unreliable’ in some essentially flawed way but because their obligation to family (often ritual) is too great to suspend through a contract with strangers. Marshall Sahlins’ essay on ‘Stranger Kings’ shows that this applies even to choosing to submit to a ruler.

The strong ties with kin and weak ties with non-kin can cause even greater problems which is why we find such elaborate hospitality rituals around the world. Tourists often misinterpret these under the heading of ‘oh, the people are so friendly here’ but in fact, this is a function of the culture not having a norm around dealing with strangers that does not rely on the notion of guest as temporary kin.

The ancient Greek concept of ‘xenia’ – hospitality to strangers can be very illustrative. We know the root from ‘xenophobia’ but the Latin equivalent gave us both hospitality and hostility. Xenia not only dictates extraordinary measures to take care of guests but it also strictly regulates the behavior of those same guests. Breaking the rules of hospitality has been the source of many problems from the Trojan War to the blood feuds in modern Albania – for instance, as described in Kadare’s “Broken April”.

These are not inevitable consequences of the sort of groupings Brooks is describing and advocating for. Not is he unaware of potential internal problems. But when the entire world is structured through strong kin-like ties, we have not just created an archipellago of utopias – as some in the Seasteading movement seem to imagine – we have a world that is fundamentally different from what we know. The demands of the trade-centred world dependent on industrial production and industrialised aggriculture cannot be entirely ignored in this vision.

Conclusion: The kin, the strangers, and the state

In conclusion,these rough sketches are not meant to diminish Brooks’ contribution. If I were asked to come up with an alternative to the nuclear family, it is almost exactly, what I would propose. Many ethnographic accounts of impoverished communities all over the world show that these networks often emerge organically. And we should be doing as much as possible to normalize them. They are not some lesser, last resort alternatives to the nuclear family. They are both natural and can be healthy and robust. But they don’t exist in a vacuum and are themselves not static nor do are they uniformly idyllic. There are cracks the size of valleys between them and sometimes even within them. And it’s very easy for individuals to fall through those.

That’s where we still must see a role for the state to protect both individuals and groups from falling to the ground without a safety net as well as adjudicate the parameters of their encounter. At the moment, the state support structure is entirely structured around the schemas and scripts of the nuclear family on the one hand, and the contract between strangers on the other. It needs to recognise a wider range of support networks and obligations which is only possible if we reframe the notion of family. Such reframings are always long and do not progress in a linearly predictable fashion. Brooks’ essay is an undeniably valuable contribution to this process. So despite any quibbles and caveats, I’m all for it.

How to actually write a sentence: The building blocks of written language


Some time ago, Thomas Basbøll followed up his excellent post on how to write a paragraph with a much more daring endeavour on how to write a sentence. And while the post is a pleasure to read, I think it did not quite overcome the challenge the author stated at the start:

“it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph.”

Indeed, it is much more difficult to talk about the mechanics of writing the sentence because we generally want to forget we are composing a sentence, whereas we want to focus on the fact we are composing a paragraph. In this, writing a sentence is much like riding a bicycle. You cannot really do it successfully while attending to every aspect of the process. Basbøll’s metaphor here is very apt:

“it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.”

The problem with his solution, though, is that it only focused on the role of the sentence in the process of expressing ideas rather than the mechanics of putting a sentence together. This is because a sentence is an artificial construct. We think of it as a natural unit but, in fact, it is only an accident of history that we’ve started dividing chunks of text with full stops and beginning them with capital letters.

The sentence is just one way of articulating a thought. It could be a list. A phrase. Or a whole stream-of-consiousness story. But through conventions, we think of all of these as inferior kinds of writing. Expressing ourselves ‘in complete sentences’ has been agreed to be the hallmark of educated expression. And whether we agree with it or not, sentence is what we’re stuck with.

What is a sentence?

There is much debate in linguistics as to what is the foundational building block of language. It could be a phoneme (sound), syllable (much more natural in speech), word (unit of meaning), utterance or text (one chunk of speech with a message). It could also be a phrase. But by far the best candidate is a clause – a unit with one predicate and one subject – even if it is not always easy to define exactly what predicates and subjects are. But whatever the basic building block of language may be, sentence is definitely not it. It’s not even a unit in conversational speech but despite its visual significance, it is not really the basic building block of written language either.

This is because the boundaries of a sentence are completely arbitrary. They are simply there for the convenience of visual processing. The preceding 2 sentences could just as easily have been one. And many people would insist that they would be better as one and then argue over the proper rules of punctuation.

The real problem, and the one Basbøll is actually writing about, is how to express one’s thoughts through writing in a way that generates mental representations in the mind of the reader that are as close as possible to those of the writer. He illustrates it nicely with a quote from Orwell:

“As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head.”

There is something in this. We might argue that at least what is written represents what is in the writer’s head. But often our written words are just an echo of what was in one’s mind rather than a rendering of a mental image. Who has not had the experience of reading something they have written and not being completely certain what they meant by it?

So, making sure you build the right image in the reader’s mind with your words is excellect advice. But where Orwell, Basbøll’s essay and many others come up short is in explaining how to go about stringing those words together in just the right way so that they can trigger the right image in the reader’s mind. In this post, I’d like to suggest some ways in which we actually may go about learning to write a sentence to achieve this aim.

Dual articulation, riding the bike and Krashen’s monitor

But before we go any further, let’s look a bit more closely at the nature of the difficulty identified by Basbøll. That is: What we really want is to express ideas, not craft sentences. We want to go effortlessly from idea to sentence or better still from idea to paragraph. But we have to pass through many intermediate steps before we get there. Choosing words, calling up their spelling, deciding on their relative placement, whether we should add any endings, and then telling our fingers to type them. It’s even more complex in speech, where we have to arrange our mouths, tongues and teeth into complex configurations and coordinate all of that with the work of the lungs and the epiglottis.

In other words, before we can articulate a thought, we have to articulate a lot of other things. This has been called the ‘dual articulation’ of language. Dual articulation is one of the most underappreciated aspects of language. It is what makes non-native language learning so hard. And writing is certainly not native to any of us.

We spend a lot of time trying to learn all the rules of articulating words and sentences. But in order to successfully and fluently articulate ideas (which is what language is there for after all), we have to make the complex process of articulation of all the building blocks of language disappear. If we were to attend to all aspects of it, we would be permanently tongue-tied.

This is an experience that any learner of a foreign language has had when trying to use their newly acquired knowledge outside the classroom. Stephen Krashen has proposed the monitor hypothesis where the goal of language acquisition is to reduce the role of the grammatical monitor. In the same way that native speakers not only do not pay attention to how they put words and sentences together, learners must get rid of this additional burden. Speaking a language then is just like riding a bike. If you pay attention to all the tiny movements that are involved in peddaling while keeping balance, you fall off. But equally, if you miss any of them out, you fall off, as well.

So what are we, who want to teach others to write sentences, to do? On the one hand, we have to tell them about the principles of sentence structure that they were not able to suss out from their own reading. But on the other hand, we have to lead them to completely forget about all of them when they most matter and just write.

Writing as editing and editing as reading

Luckily, writing is not as ephemeral and fast flowing as speaking. We can always come back to a sentence we wrote and change it beyond all recognition. So, to teach somebody how to write is really teaching them how to edit. And a big part of teaching somebody how to edit, is to teach them about what to pay attention to when reading.

To be clear, a fluent writer can formulate a sentence without much need for further editing. But editing is a process through which such facility can be acquired. And even the most expert writers will need to come back and edit some of their sentences.

What does an editor pay attention to? They will tell you that they look at two things: 1. does the sentence make sense and 2. does it flow from the previous sentences and into those that follow. They will also look at more formal aspects such as spelling, undue repetition of words, stylistic appropriateness, etc. But 1 and 2 (sometimes also called coherence and cohesion) are the fundamental structural jobs a sentence has to perform.

How to craft a sentence

This finally brings us to the ultimate aim of this post. How to actually put a sentence together. This is, of course, impossible to cover in a single blog post. There are shelves in libraries around the world groaning under the weight of volumes that barely scratch the surface of all the aspects of a well-crafted sentence. Yet, people have managed to become competent or even admired writers despite all that. So, there must be way.

Learning to craft a sentence

It is important that aspiring writers think about the learning process as much as about the actual components of a sentence. And the process is very simple:

  1. When you read something, spend at least some of the time, looking at how it is put together. If this is not what you naturally do, set aside some time to do this as part of your reading.
  2. Form hypotheses about the rules the author used and then try them out yourself. It does not matter whether these hypotheses are correct ‘grammatical’ rules or even whether they look like grammatical rules. It just matters that you can do something with them.
  3. Leave what you wrote sit for a while and then come back to it. Read it again and see if it still makes sense. Then go back and look at how what you wrote differs from what you intended. And also compare this with other writing.
  4. Read things out loud or have them read to you (e.g. by text to speech). This will sometimes allow you to notice things about the text that you may skip over when reading silently.
  5. Do this a lot.

With that in mind, let’s finally have a look at some of the things you have to know about how to write a sentence.

Making a sentence make sense – Coherence

For a sentence to fulfil its ideational function, it has to make sense. This means that the sentence must not only contain the idea you want to express, it must not get in the way of that idea. When you’re editing your sentences to make sure they make sense, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible to read the sentence in other ways? Sometimes, when a sentence comes out of your head, you are blinded to its other possible meanings. Read it out loud, or ask your software to read it out loud for you.
  • Have you chosen the right words? This seems obvious but choosing the words that mean what you want to say is not a given.
  • Are the subjects of the clauses linked clearly to their verbs? Or, is it clear what the verbs in your sentence are describing? Conversely, is it clear what is happening to the nouns in your sentence? A simple test is to try to reduce the clauses in your sentence just to underlying verb and noun pair (or subject and predicate). Then keep adding the other words until the sentence is back together. If this sounds like old-fashioned parsing, it’s because it is. But sometimes it is necessary to strip your sentence bare and then slowly add only the necessary components back. Often it is the only way to make a sentence that got away from you make sense again.
  • Have you compressed too much into a single sentence? Can you expect that your readers have the same background and can take a hint?
  • Is it clear what the pronouns refer to? When you’re writing, your subject is very active in your head. So, it is very common to keep using pronouns or other vague words to refer to what you’re talking about. It is safer to use pronouns a bit more sparingly and repeat more often. While there’s a lot of research in this area, there is no one rule for how to do this right. But most of us were warned against repetition by our teachers, so a good rule of thumb is to repeat a bit more often than you feel comfortable.
  • Have you used the keywords in the right context? Sometimes words have multiple meanings and the one you are trying to express may not be the one most readers associate with it. Perhaps the best tool to help you here is a corpus. The iWeb corpus is a great tool for checking how words are used.

Making a sentence hold together – Cohesion

But even if your sentences make sense and use all the appropriate conventions, they still have to hold together and fit in with the rest of the text. This is often the easiest problem to overlook because you have an overall picture of the text in your mind, so it all flows perfectly in your head.

But your reader will have to build a picture of the text from scratch. And, also, they may not always read perfectly linearly, so even a sentence read out of context should make it clear where it relates to what came before.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re editing a sentence:

  • Have I made the right logical connections? If one thing is caused by another, is there a ‘because’ or a similar conjunction to make the link explicit?
  • Have I not put too much distance between closely related things? Long parentheticals can be fun but make it very easy for the reader (as well as the writer) to get lost.
  • Have I focused the reader on the right point? The topic (or known information) of a sentence is usually at the beginning and the focus (or new information) should come at the end.
  • Have I given the reader too much work to parse the sentence? If so, can I make it easier by splitting the sentence into shorter chunks?
  • Can I move some things to a later sentence?
  • Have I expressed a clear link to what came previously?
  • Have I placed the sentences in the right order? Don’t be afraid to move a sentence to the end to make sure the key information comes earlier.

A useful tool to use here is the Hemingway Editor. It will highlight sentences that are too long. Now, in many genres, such as academic writing, long sentences are not always a problem. They’re almost the expectation. But a sentence that goes on too long should be a signal to you, that you may not have expressed your idea clearly. I find that my long sentences are often just piles of ideas that need to be taken apart and given more air.

Making a sentence communicate what you want how you want it: Genre and style

Even if your sentence makes sense, your reader must be willing to try to read it. This means that you must meet as many of their expectations as possible so that they can focus on the meaning. You do this by conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of the genre you work within. If you do break these conventions, make sure you’re doing it for a reason.

If you’re writing an academic essay, stay within the [register] of academic language. This is where the various guides on academic English come in. They break down language into communicative functions like argumentation, persuasion or disagreement. And then they give you lots of appropriate phrases to achieve that function.

This is also where you need to do a lot of targetted reading in the area you want to write in. Don’t just read for content, read with an eye on the way people express themselves. Narrow your area as much as you can.

For example, there’s not just one ‘academic English’. Each little subdiscipline has its own conventions, so it’s worth paying attention to those. One piece of advice given is, before you submit a paper to a journal, read other papers that had already been published there. They will give you a clue as to the expectations. This applies at all levels, not just the sentence.

There are technical tools that can help you. For instance, you can paste your text to the Analyze tool on and check the words you used against a corpus of academic writing.

Writing and editing process tips

Finally, here are some tips about the process of writing and editing your text at the level of a sentence.

  • Don’t edit every sentence independently – only edit when you’ve written several of them to make sure they hang together.
  • Feel free to delete a sentence. Often, once we’ve written something, we feel possessive about it. But often, deleting something can be very helpful. Like pruning a tree.
  • Feel free to split a sentence in two or three. Sometimes, it will give you space to express yourself more clearly. But sometimes, it will just give your reader a visual cue that a new idea is coming. Or at least some space to take a breath.
  • By the same token, don’t be afraid to start or end a sentence with a preposition or a conjunction. It’s much better than twisting yourself around.
  • Don’t be too scared of long sentences. Sometimes, joining two shorter sentences together makes the text flow better.

Reflections and conclusions

The abiding concern of anyone telling somebody else how to write is whether they themselves measure up to what they preach. Or at least, it should be. We know that Orwell used more passives than average while advising against them, Strunk and White used many of the same constructions they advised against, and the Plain English campaign proponents don’t always use simple language.

Equally, I cannot guarantee that every sentence in this guide is a paragon of what a well-crafted sentence should be. I know my limits. I tend to write more than needed and not cut out enough having learned my English syntax at the feet of PG Wodehouse. But demonstrating perfection at the level of the sentence is not the point of this post, and neither should that be the aim of most writers. The aim is to get the point across and then to move on.

But the most important conclusion is that hesitant writers must pay attention to the learning process. It is not possible to explicitly follow all the tiny little rules for putting together a sentence. You must internalise the shapes and bigger chunks, so that you can focus on experessing your ideas. This can only be achieved through deliberate practice. And editing what you wrote is the most crucial part of that practice. Great writers have great editors, or if they’re poor, they’re their own great editors.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay