Monday 8 April 2013

G is for Grammar

I like grammar - no, don't groan - let me tell you why. Grammar is the structure of our language, without it, words stand alone, separate and without full meaning, but put them together with the glue we call grammar and our language can be a vibrant tool and express everything from the everyday how to bake a cake to extraordinary works of literary genius.

I am also a firm believer in knowing the rules before you try to break them, and, yes, I am all in favour of breaking, bending and abusing grammar rules when the prose calls for it, but the important point here is, you shouldn't break the rules by accident. And readers can tell the difference.

I wasn't taught grammar at school, not completely. We didn't study superlatives and subordinate clauses: I was taught in an era where it was thought we should just pick it all up for ourselves and it was interpretation that was important, not getting the structure right. In my opinion, complete poppycock! We need both to fully appreciate the beauty of language.

I learnt enough grammar at school to pass my exams (I could spout off about similes, metaphors and alliteration in poetry with the best of them) and write a submissions' letter to university; pretty boring, handle-turning stuff. However, the more I have dived into creative writing, the more I have come to appreciate grammar.

Strictly speaking (pun intended ;P), grammar 'is the set of structural rules that governs the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language' (thank you wikipedia). However, I'm also talking about grammar's necessary cousins, punctuation and spelling. Without this triumvirate of tools, misunderstanding can easily occur. I have a secret love of grammar memes, I find them funny, and one of the good ones that comes around from time to time is:
Grammar: the difference between
knowing you're shit
knowing your shit.

Punctuation and grammar going hand in hand ;).

My favourite grammar book, or rather, book on the triumvirate, is Lynne Truss', Eats, Shoots and Leaves - The Zero Tollerance Approach to Punctuation. The book is not a dry little tome like some of the other grammar books, it is witty, scathingly observational and even managed to teach me how to us semi-colons and colons beyond lists. The title comes from the joke:

A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead.

As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, "Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn't pay for your sandwich!" 

The panda yells back at the bartender, "Hey, I'm a PANDA! Look it up!" The bartender opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for panda: 

"A tree dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white colouring. Eats, shoots and leaves."

One of the best points Lynne makes is that grammarians and punctuation champions would never, ever be able to form an army to wipe out bad grammar, because we'd never be able to agree on what actually defines good or bad. She quotes Martin Amis quoting Kingsley Amis and I'm going to paraphrase here:
There are two types of bad approaches to language: the berks who are totally slipshod in their use of language, making grammar mistakes all over the place; then there are the wankers, who are totally over the top, finickerty with the rules, prissy and overly pedantic. And, to any grammarian, everyone else is either a berk, or a wanker.

The point is that language is always changing, and with it the rules that govern its usage. And, at any point in time, there will be those embracing the changes and those who resist them as sounding vulgar. However, that doesn't mean we can give up learning those rules. When I first learnt to write, I was always taught never to end a sentence with a preposition, which led to all sorts of shenanigans inserting the preposition in front of 'which', e.g. I picked up the pencil case, from which I then drew the key. I don't always stick to this rule now, although I do sometimes, for one of two reasons:
  1. to aid understanding of the sentence, e.g. rather than getting my for's in a tangle in, This was it, the place which he had been searching for for ten years, I would probably say, This was it, the place for which he had been searching for ten years
  2. to make the prose sound formal, either in dialogue, or a character's thought process. 
So, even if I don't always need this rule anymore, it is always useful to understand it, because it can be a handy trick to have up one's sleeve, especially when writing Dumbledore. ;)

My grammar/punctuation/spelling isn't perfect, I make mistakes like everyone else, I sometimes get whole words wrong. It took me using 'prostrate' repeatedly in a Harry Potter fanfic for a helpful reader to point out that I actually meant 'supine', as she explained it, she couldn't work out why I was saying Harry was on his front, when he was clearly, from the rest of the prose, on his back. I am always happy to learn and I've never made that particular mistake again.

I'll finish with this thought, grammar is not a stick to beat someone with, but it is a carrot to help them build better meaning, structure and artistry into their words.

What do you think?

P.S. Check out other folk doing the A to Z April Challenge.
And if you want to see my other posts:


  1. TOTAL grammar nazi here. Cannot stand when people mix up their and there or two and too. Ugh.

    Happy A through Z blogging!

    1. I don't have instant pet peeves, because anyone can make a mistake. However, if there are lots of errors in a text, then I start getting annoyed :)

  2. I love grammar too, but hate that some people don't check their writing for grammar mistakes. I also love Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a must have for every writer, at least IMHO. :)

    Sherrey at Healing by Writing

    1. I agree about grammar mistakes. I try my best always to check my own writing on the blog and, if I can, get someone else to check it. I have editors for my books, but even so, I still cringe when, on the fiftieth reading, I still find I've left a mistake in there! Ebook screw ups are a whole new dimension of mistakes as well - I have found that fiancé has become fianc.

  3. Hi, just popping by from the a-z challenge. I think grammar is important, unfortunately I don't think it's such a big issue these days in schools. I hate all the text speak! It's ok sometimes but not constantly.

    1. Hi! I think schools should instil when grammar is important and when it isn't. Texting your friends, even chatting on facebook do not require too much grammar, although I have seen some posts that took a while to interpret, because the grammar was so bad. However, job applications, essays, books, any formal publications require a decent grasp of grammar to be clearly understood.

  4. I get angry when people think they can write, but they have no idea about their mother language. I was chatting with someone on a writing forum, and she said that she'd sent her first few chapters off to agents, but kept getting rejected and she didn't know why. I offered to read through her work to see if I could offer some help. After reading the first line I knew why her work was being rejected; she had absolutely no grasp of English grammar (and spelling, and punctuation). It was painful to read.

    I just don't understand. If you want to be a writer, surely you want to study the craft of writing. Right?!

    1. I am happy to help people who are willing to take advice and learn , and I'll even give a break to those who don't know what they don't know, because there has been a severe lack of grammar teaching in the UK for the last thirty years or more - I only get really annoyed with those who think they don't need to bother learning, because structure is not important, when, actually, I think it is.


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