In Defense of Grammar

Years ago, before any of my novels or articles were published, I decided that if I was going to get serious about writing I needed a writing class. The instructor wrote children’s books. Past middle age, her long gray hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She was given to smock tops, tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and she was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author should look like, maybe any author. I’ve learned a lot since then.

She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea how to explain how an author constructed a story, built characters, and incorporated tension. Those things I would learn much later.

What she did do was emphasize the importance of story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He brushed away the idea of story entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct. No one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

It took me awhile to realize they were both right.

I grew up in Catholic schools, back in the days when nuns wearing habits, who were addicted to diagramming sentences, staffed them. Maybe that’s why I hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.

It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a different meaning to a sentence than the one you intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and the story stops while the reader tries to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting that the reader puts it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is on the Internet. Today, anyone can comment on anything and post it for the world to see. Those comments are often vitriolic, lambasting everything and everybody. The government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or merely their neighbor who lets her kids dare to play on the sidewalk, they all get a liberal dose of abuse. The Internet is awash in comments, posted by people who seem to take pride in the fact that their tweet has turned into a squawk. When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to a conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St. Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off. I wonder, where were these people’s sixth grade teachers? Or are they so intent on posting their pearls of wisdom they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they’ve missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know where the delete button is or some of their postings would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to re-read, and then re-write, what they have written. Does it make sense? Do the words flow together to present the thought accurately, and is the sentence a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end? If you make a point important to you, shouldn’t you take the time to express it in a way that makes sense? More people will read your comments on Facebook or Twitter than will ever read a novel, a scary thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “writer,” just someone who wishes to make an occasional comment. You still need to go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar and Delete is under your right hand’s little finger.