I am taking a graduate level grammar class this semester. I apologize and you have been forewarned.
Grammar is an under-appreciated beast. It seems an inborn relationship, that of writing needing grammar, but very few people truly understand why the two are symbiotic. It’s the Adobe Illustrator of the writing world; everyone knows it can do great things, but very few bother to learn how it really works beyond the very basics. Many people assume they know enough about grammar to get by.
It is equal parts adored and reviled. Non-grammar people love to hate it, and grammar enthusiasts love to hate people who misuse it. It is more often than not misunderstood and almost always misrepresented by misguided, albeit well-meaning supporters.
Grammar carries on its back a latent fear, the summation of all of those painful elementary school lessons that you never quite learned and definitely don’t remember now. It causes unwanted mental disruptions in even the best language handlers. It vexes young editors and senior writers alike. It reminds a lot of word-people that their grasp on this whole “English” thing is more slippery and tentative than they care to admit.
There is nothing to fear about grammar. It is (when its guts are dissected and carefully examined) the math of language. The formulas and order of operations that keeps everything in line. It dictates how and when we can use certain patterns, and gives us a standard to mold our writing around.
If the goal of writing is to convey a message, grammar is the vehicle the message drives. It is the jeep that tumbles over the rocky terrain of complex ideas. Without grammar, writing would be an incoherent jumble of words, out of order, misspelled, with no rules governing how to decode and understand the message.
Without canon grammar, we’d all spell and write (and sound) like Chaucer.
Nobody wants that.
So, why do you need to understand grammar? Why should you care if your language is passive or you’ve split tons of infinitives or overused conjunctions in a sentence like I did in this one?
To oversimplify: clarity.
My wife has a motto, “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.”
If you can’t clearly present your idea or argument because of muddled grammar, what’s the point of writing it down and sharing it with the world?
1. Grammar is your friend, not your enemy
I really dislike the term “Grammar Nazi.” Not only does it apply all sorts of unnecessary (and frankly tasteless) connotations, it also perpetuates a culture where the only way to fix bad grammar is to ridicule and demonize it. Nazis wanted to create a perfect master race. Grammarians just want people to be accurate. Big, not-so-subtle difference.
If we’re forced by some weird societal zeitgeist to have a catchphrase for grammar-sticklers, I’d prefer “Grammar Ninja.” Instead of loudly declaring your hatred of poor grammar while wearing large boots and screaming at people to correct that use of “their” to “they’re”, sneak in under shadow and assassinate the bad grammar. Move like ink from the tip of a pen, flow through the errors, slice out mistakes. A good editor/writer will seamlessly, stealthily, efficiently correct grammar without making a big show of it, all ninja-like.
Godwinning grammarians makes grammar seem mean and harsh and evil. Grammar is anything but. It is there to help you organize your thoughts and be as articulate as possible. It is that really well qualified buddy who wants to help you with that start-up company, if you’d just stop ignoring all of his calls.
You wouldn’t yell at your wrench for not being able to loosen a bolt. You’d yell at the bolt, or your pathetic upper body strength, or the person who tightened the bolt in the first place. So why be mad at grammar for your poor sentences? Figure out what went wrong and why, and fix it.
Any sinking sentence can be repaired with the proper application of grammar. Remember that the next time you get mad at someone for using a possessive apostrophe to pluralize a word. Help and use the grammar, don’t shun and hate the grammar.
2. Grammar is a toolbox, not a single tool
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that almost anything in life can be explained by drawing parallels to Lego, especially writing, editing, and other literary endeavors.
The word “grammar” is not just an abstract, but also a collective noun. It stands for all of a writer’s tools: tense-wrenches and structure-screwdrivers, appositive-augers and subordinate-saws.
Just like the word “Lego” is a catch-all for the blocks and fasteners and mini-figures. You have 2×2 blocks and 3×1 blocks and those weird “L” shaped blocks, and little men with swords and helmets that make up the abstract concept of Lego.
You could just stick the blocks together however so struck your fancy at the time, and I’m sure people would recognize it as something built out of Lego. But to turn those little plastic blocks into something that other people want to look at and in turn appreciate, you have to follow the rules in the instruction pamphlet.
Grammar is the same way. You can loosely throw around constructs and still get some vague message across, but if you want your readers to understand your point and have a meaningful reaction, you have to be as clear as possible. Being clear means acknowledging the rules set forth by contemporary grammarians and reading lots of Strunk and White. Any misplaced subjects or confusing adjectival phrases or malapropisms will distract your reader from your message.
You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer a nail (even though it could work), so you shouldn’t use weak adverbs where a strong verb could do a better job. Good grammar (and good writing) comes down to the best application of the best tool in the right circumstance.
Figure out which tools are already in your grammatical toolbox, and which ones you still need to acquire Learn what each tool does and how it can be best applied to strengthen your writing.
When you’ve mastered your tools, your message can’t help but be clear.
3. To break the rules you have to know the rules
I’ve never been a big fan of rules. Rules by their nature are restrictive, and I don’t like anyone or anything to tell me what I can and can’t do, as a general life philosophy.
I do however appreciate why rules exist. Rules are for the people who don’t quite get it yet, and serve as a universal basis that everyone can understand and work from. It is good to have rules, so that anyone can fall back on them and say, “well yes, I guess that works, but the rules say to do it this way” should there ever be any confusion.
But, as the cliche goes, “rules are made to be broken.” Most creativity would be stifled if it were forced to always follow a set of guidelines, so the very act of creating something new often defies an existing rule set. In order to be fresh and innovative, you’re going to have to smash down some rule-walls and tell the standards police to shove it up their textbooks.
With that comes certain responsibility. A responsibility to understand what rules you are breaking, and why breaking them is a good thing. The only reason to ever break a grammatical rule is for style, effect, or voice. If you’re breaking a rule for another reason, chances are you don’t understand the rule in the first place.
The only way to effectively play with grammar is to first make grammar your bitch.
Ever wonder how really rich dudes and corporations get away with not paying a huge amount in taxes? It’s because they (or the people they employ) know the tax rules better than they know their own children. They know just how far they can bend a rule without breaking it. Just how much of the gross income can be claimed as international revenue. Just how many legal donations will lead to huge tax write-offs.
If you want to bend (or even break) the grammatical rules, you first have to study a lot of grammar. Not just the basic stuff you learned in school, but complex grammar including usage, phrasing, colloquialism, etc.
If you try to break the rules without really knowing the rules, people will notice. You might break the rules too much, or too little, or in a way that doesn’t make sense which will make your writing look sloppy and unprofessional.
And most importantly, if you’re going to break any rules, make sure you’re doing it for a reason that will support your voice, theme, or message.
Breaking them for the sake of breaking them, just because you don’t like them and want to see them in pain, is no way to go through your writing life.