Grammar: The Recipe for Written Language

How can something be a primal desire, yet also a highly acclaimed art form? The purpose of food ranges from fulfilling innate survival instincts all the way to providing an aesthetically pleasing image on Food Network. The chef is the author of a meal, regardless if it is delicious or not. Whether a novice sandwich maker or a five-star cook, the chef brainstorms (or borrows) an idea, crafts (or follows) a recipe, tests it out, and serves it up as a finished product. Writing—or storytelling, in some cases—also ranges from a basic method of communication to a form of entertainment or enlightenment. A writer must follow the rules of grammar, like a recipe: punctuation, parts of speech, and rhetoric, with the yielded product being a paper, essay, poem, novel, or journal entry. Some final products are shared with the masses, while others are simply for personal enjoyment. The writer is much like the chef, and words are her ingredients. Grammar is the recipe that guides the writer.

As with many recipes, grammar rules have some flexibility. The chef can tweak a cookie recipe to an extent by leaving out a fraction of the chocolate chips or adding in some nuts. Similarly, grammar is sometimes preference-based (is it grey or gray?). However, at the heart of both cooking and writing, the creator wants to stick as close to the recipe as possible so she winds up with a product that elicits pride; a product that others can enjoy and, in some cases, be jealous of. A great chef wouldn’t throw a bunch of ingredients into a bowl, toss it on a baking sheet, throw it into an unspecified oven temperature, and actually expect something delicious to come out, would she? Why then would a great writer consider that approach with writing? When followed strictly, grammar yields wonderful results that make writing a fluid process enjoyed by all.

A key component in a recipe is a step, which contains a complete action or thought. When a chef follows a recipe, each step is clearly indicated by a break on the page or an indented line. These steps convey a new action is taking place, or that something else is being added to the recipe. This is parallel to a sentence in writing. Like a step in cooking, the period is a closing mark in writing that signals the ending of one sentence and the beginning of another. Not all varying instructions in the recipe signify a new step, however, and not all punctuation indicates a new sentence. A semicolon indicates a close relationship between clauses, one that doesn’t require as drastic of a break as created by the period. While cooking, the chef will let a pot of gravy simmer, but will stir it every once in a while. The acts aren’t so far apart that they need to be listed as separate steps in the recipe, but they aren’t close enough where it’s the same activity. Although visually similar to the semicolon, the colon is instead used to list off appositives or to join two independent clauses where the second completes the promise of the first. The former use is similar to the list of ingredients at the beginning of a recipe, as all of the ingredients make up, and therefore describe, the item being prepared.

Even the semicolon and colon are too harsh at times, and a softer pause is needed. A comma is a break in the sentence, meant to set off clauses, listed items, introductions, or to add emphasis. In cooking, the comma is like the waiting period in between steps. For example, allowing the bread to rise is a pause in the cooking process, but it’s not setting off its own step like a period. The chef can also add eggs, oil, and vanilla extract in one step, similar to how multiple commas can be included in a given sentence. A writer can also use an em dash to interrupt or set aside parts of the sentence, and add emphasis to a particular word or phrase. In cooking, sometimes an ingredient needs to be abruptly thrown in, much like how a bread recipe may instruct the chef to suddenly add raisins during the kneading process. Finally, some punctuation is meant to marry words together while keeping the integrity of each word intact. Not to be mistaken for the dash, a hyphen links together compound words or phrases. The chef utilizes a similar system when cooking with ingredients that are already combined, such as buttermilk, lemon pepper, and flavored yogurt.

While the boundaries of where recipe steps start, pause, or finish are important to understand, one must also be familiar with what the steps are actually saying. The basis of each step in cooking is the ingredient itself. The chef has to discern what item is being added or addressed in the step. The recipe may call for cheese as an ingredient in one step. Is it simply cheese? multiple cheese slices? Swiss cheese? Whatever it may be, the step would not be complete without the ingredient, and neither would a sentence be complete without a noun (implied or not). In writing, a noun is the subject of the sentence, and it often holds the headword position. Most nouns can be plural or possessive. The addition of an ingredient in a step is of no use if the chef is not told what to do with it. Is the cheese supposed to be sliced? melted? simply added? Similarly, the noun needs a verb in the sentence to describe what it’s doing. A verb is the action word in the sentence, and it can end in -s and -ing. In cooking, this is similar to what the chef is supposed to do with the ingredient. Without the action, both the step and the sentence would be meaningless.

Although the step is compete with both an ingredient and an instruction, a great chef knows that a recipe will fall flat without more pizzazz and detail. A sentence can also stand on its own with just a noun and verb, but adjectives and adverbs bring it to life. The ingredients themselves often need further description for clarity, much like how the adjective modifies the noun in a sentence. For the chef, this may entail requesting more specific ingredients, such as half-and-half as opposed to milk, or organic, stone-ground wheat flour instead of just flour. It would be bland recipe, however, if the ingredient was the only thing elaborated on; the action in the step needs clarity too. An adverb modifies a verb in the sentence, just like how the chef reads the recipe to learn how quickly to stir a batter, exactly how long to brown a pancake on each side before flipping it, and how finely to chop the onion.

Sometimes a recipe requires further clarification on an otherwise generic instruction or ingredient. An appositive is a noun phrase that describes or further identifies a nominal structure, often another noun phrase. This would be similar to a recipe stating to use green onions, also known as scallions. A chef, being efficient with ingredients, may swap out a known brand or ingredient for something generic to save time and/or money. Similarly, a pronoun takes the place of a noun or nominal, such as he, she, and it. The noun it replaces is referred to as the antecedent. It’s generic and used for simplicity. For the chef, this swap is very much like using store-brand sandwich cookies instead of Oreos, or using frozen pie crust as opposed to making it from scratch.

These specific parts can be further organized because various instructions and mini-steps comprise a step in a recipe. For the writer, these instructions and mini-steps within the step are like clauses and phrases within a sentence. Clauses have subjects and predicates, while phrases don’t have both subjects and predicates. Only clauses can be sentences. For the chef, a mini-step consists of both the ingredient and what to do with it, while the instruction just consists of an ingredient or step. Clauses can also be dependent or independent, much like how aspects of the recipe could stand on their own and be edible, while others won’t be complete without other ingredients and steps. For example, cookie dough is a delicious stopping point, but one wouldn’t want to eat raw chicken nuggets. Some steps contain two edible mini-recipes, like how a compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses. Similarly, other steps contain an item of food that needs to be cooked further, like how a complex sentence contains a dependent clause.

The chef will sometimes combine several of these ingredients and actions into one step. For the writer, this is parallel to the use of conjunctions, which are words that join words, phrases, or clauses. There are three types of conjunctions for the writer to choose from. The first is a coordinating conjunction, which joins things of equal importance. This is like a recipe saying the chef, based on preference, can add either raisins or currants to the bread. The next is a subordinating conjunction, which signifies a dependent clause is on the horizon. This would be similar to a step in the recipe suggesting that if one is at a high altitude, one may want to use more water than normal. The ingredients are dependent on the climate, and must be adjusted accordingly. The last is a correlative conjunction, which pertains to a reciprocal or complimentary relationship. This is similar to the recipe stating to mix both cake batters the same way, or never add walnuts—or any kind of nut, for that matter—to the initial mixing step.

On top of all of these elements, the chef must ensure the ingredient ratios are exact. If the amount of eggs is doubled, the amount of flour must be doubled as well. Similarly, the writer must honor agreement by ensuring that the subject and verb of a sentence always agree. The recipe needs to follow a logical pattern. It wouldn’t make sense for the chef to preheat the oven if the dough still needs to rise for four hours. Likewise, cohesion is needed in writing to have a smooth connection between sentences. Part of cohesion is respecting the known-new contract, which is where old information will appear in the subject position, with the new information in the predicate position. This is similar to starting with a simple recipe to understand a more complex one later on.

Although understanding the components of the recipe and how they work is important, the chef must also look at it as a whole and understand the single recipe’s place within the meal itself. The cooking process has a certain flow to it, and an experienced chef knows how to coast through the recipes simultaneously. For the writer, sentence rhythm is the pattern of stresses in the spoken language, much like the patterns of the recipe. The chef must work to keep all parts of the meal progressing at once, such as boiling water for the noodles while sauteing the mushrooms. Coordination is also crucial if the chef wishes to multitask while cooking. For the writer, coordination is expanding the sentences in which two or more structures of the same form serve as a unit. Likewise, certain steps in the recipe my call for the chef to put the milk and the eggs together in the same step, and then to mix them the same way.

Once the meal is complete, the context in which the chef serves the food will greatly impact the food’s purpose and meaning. For the writer, this is identical to rhetoric which is the discernment aspect of writing. For example, it’s common sense that one should have cereal for breakfast and pasta for dinner, or to serve juice boxes to children and wine to adults. One wouldn’t (usually) offer guests coffee at eleven in the evening, and neither should one utilize text speech in a school paper. One’s brother might love pizza on football night, but one would probably serve one’s sweetheart something classier on Valentine’s Day. A research paper will usually have distinct verbiage differences from a blog post. Rhetoric is understanding who the audience is and aiming your writing at that audience. It’s all about the dinner guest, or in the writer’s case, the reader.

All of this would be meaningless if every meal tasted the same, regardless of which chef cooked it. The final aspect that sets the cooking apart is the flair with which the chef crafts the meals. The chef may have a favorite spice to use, a trick to ensuring the cookies are always cooked to perfection, a certain way to marinate the meat, and a secret ingredient in the prize-winning stew. A writer’s style is one and the same. The writer may have a certain diction, tone, inclination towards sarcasm, or sentence patterns that make their writing distinctly unique. Style is what sets the writer’s work apart, or at least gives it some notable features that can be recognized regularly throughout their writing. Style is the writer’s voice.

Without the chef adhering to all the components of the recipe, disaster would ensue. If incorrect ingredients were used, or the wrong food was served to people at a bad time, the meal would be a wreck. Likewise, the writer’s project would be quite a disaster if it was riddled with poor grammar and read to the wrong people in an improper setting. Clarity is a crucial component of writing, and it can’t be achieved without proper grammar usage. The writer, like the chef, must follow the system as closely as possible to achieve great results. They must embrace these instructions and immerse themselves in them, instead of harboring a grudge towards the system that only seeks to better their craft. Remember this: Anyone can cook, but only a great chef understands the intricacies behind the recipes, and uses them to her advantage. The sign of a great writer, then, is not only demonstrating knowledge of the system’s rules, but the ability to manipulate those rules into achieving the desired results. Those who accomplish that are masters of the trade.


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