Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Grammatical Structure of “Writing About Writing” Makes Sense, But Not Others

“Writing about writing” uses the same word as two different word classifications: progressive verb+"about"+gerund.

Some things don't make sense; Photo by Author

As a child, many of my favorite books included main characters who wanted to become writers. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo March’s desire to write a great novel inspired my idea to write a great novel. From the L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I mourned when Gilbert made fun of Anne Shirley, especially when he called her writing “highfalutin mumbo jumbo.”

Writers Alcott and Montgomery wrote about characters who wrote. This cycle feels familiar even today. Now there is an entire industry of writers writing about writing. Some make thousands of dollars from writers and wannabee writers purchasing these items. Even I fall into the trap of writing about writing. I enjoy helping others improve their writing and other language skills, though I haven’t made any money with writing advice yet.

These thoughts on “writing about writing” intrigued me on a grammatical level. The syntax (word order) is a verb+preposition+noun, where the first verb is in the progressive tense and the noun is a gerund (the progressive verb form used as a noun). I experimented with other verbs: reading about reading, dreaming about dreaming, or hearing about hearing. These constructions made sense while others did not: walking about walking, tasting about tasting, or climbing about climbing.

So what makes some verbs work, but not others?

I wondered about abstract verbs versus concrete verbs, but that didn’t quite make sense. For example, the abstract idea of “thinking about thinking” works yet the concrete idea of “typing about typing” works too. What makes sense comes down to word definitions and context. Otherwise, these are grammatically correct, but nonsense phrases.

In the end, words are more than letters, sounds, and word classes. They are the meaning generations of humans have imbued into these sounds. Each word has an idea associated with it. Thus, I am writing about writing.

So what progressive verbs can you think of that work as gerunds that don’t sound nonsensical?