Wittier Word Weavers

Writers' Club of Whittier

Grammar? Get over It


grammar-389907_1280I studied grammar 
in school, and it stuck. I remember when to say “me” and when to say “I,” and what’s more, I can tell you why. I learned the parts of speech, I studied tenses and cases, and I diagrammed sentences. I even studied Latin which, we were told, would improve our grasp of English. Now I’m finally working on the fulfillment of a lifelong dream; I’m writing a novel. You’d think I’d be an avid proponent of the study of grammar, but… not so much.

Most people learn the grammar they need through conversation, reading and writing, not by poring over textbooks and filling in worksheets. Here’s an article in The Atlantic that makes that point. My daughter never studied grammar, yet seems to have mastered it nicely. Other people take the classes, pass the tests, and still founder. If you’ve ever tried to rescue a poor writer by explaining just why “between you and I” is wrong, you may have realized it was a misdirected effort. If they’ve gotten this far in life without getting the point, chances are a brief explanation won’t set things straight. And even if you manage to change their behavior on that one small point, there’s a world of other errors waiting to drag them down. They haven’t learned a general principle, only a particular rule.

Consider also that it’s entirely possible to write intelligible, interesting, lively and ungrammatical prose, or punctiliously correct prose that is boring and pointless. Writers like Richard Mitchell would have you believe that poor writing may sink ships and crash planes. While I admit the possibility, I don’t consider it likely. The greatest evil I see in most grammatical clumsiness is that it irritates hypersensitive folk like him and me, and maybe we should just get over it.

There are people for whom the study of grammar makes sense. If you intend to write and you want to write well, grammar is one of the tools of your trade. You need grammar to be able to talk about language. The Elements of Style is a book often recommended to aspiring writers. I like it, too, but have you ever tried to read it? It’s full of pithy advice like, “Gerunds usually require the possessive case,” which is helpful if you know what gerunds are. Or the possessive case. Most people probably don’t remember that stuff and don’t need it. For a subset of us, knowing grammar is very helpful; it helps us discuss writing with other people. For that you need the vocabulary.

Consider a mechanic working on a car. If he’s all alone, he can do an admirable job without knowing the names of his tools or of the parts he’s working on. But if he’s trying to read a manual, he has to know the names of things, and if he’s got an assistant, then it can be tedious for everyone involved to cope with instructions like, “Hand me that thingummy there — no, not that one, the bigger one beside it — so I can tighten these whatchamacallits.” Better to say, “Hand me the torque wrench so I can tighten the head bolts.”

Now suppose you’re working on this sentence: “Henry is the person who I want to marry.” You could explain: “Try turning it around. You wouldn’t say, ‘I want to marry he,’ would you? Well, who is like he, and whom is like him. So if you’d say ‘I want to marry him,’ then you ought to say ‘I want to marry whom.’ So it ought to be ‘Henry is the person whom I want to marry.’ ” Clear as mud, right? Alternatively, if both of you know grammar, you can say, “You need the objective case there, because whom is the object of the verb in your clause.”

poodle-289007_1280My conclusion? Some people want to be able to tear down a car and build it back. They need to be able to read a manual. Some people want to write glorious prose. They can also profit from being able to read a manual. But most people just want to put the top down and enjoy the ride without worrying about the head bolts, and that’s just fine. Even on National Grammar Day.

11 thoughts on “Grammar? Get over It

  1. Encouraging, thanks. Let’s put the top down and drive. Enjoy the trip. Damn the torpedoes, and POV. (Or wait, is that what you meant?)

  2. Full speed ahead, Steve. If your grammar slows you down, I’m sure someone in your critique group will point it out. 😉

  3. This was terrific!! But I missed National Grammar Day? Ugh! I should be publicly flogged. This is why I so enjoy the written company of writers, or grammar people. I, too, studied diagramming sentences. (A long time ago, so don’t quiz me just yet.) I was a teacher’s aide in seventh grade English. I asked for English homework, even read dictionaries for fun. On cold days, I volunteered for detention to copy pages from the very dictionary I have still. I gave spelling tests to my friends. Of course, this was in Oklahoma and there wasn’t much else to do, insert guffaw.
    Words and grammar. Is there anything sweeter?

  4. Sweeter than words and grammar? Well, the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.. Sorry, couldn’t help it. 🙂

  5. Loved this piece, Cindy! I truly wish my students would study grammar a bit more rigorously, though, so they would understand my comments. I believe reading is the best medicine overall, that is, if the reading is well-selected.

  6. Claire, you have my sympathies. I think the problem is that you wish your students truly wanted to write well when in fact many of them are probably taking the class only for the credits.

  7. Well put.

    I’ve heard lots of great writers admit to poor spelling, grammar and punctuation, whilst others with a sound knowledge of clauses can’t tell a story without the audience falling asleep. So I agree, whilst we need some understanding for practical purposes, sometimes we need to get on with it and, as you say, enjoy the ride.

  8. There are a few other reason for studying formal grammar. It gives us insight into how the human mind works. It helps us understand how different languages and cultures are related. It allows for better human-computer interaction through natural languages, instead of programming languages. Personally, I don’t think any reason is even necessary. Languages are inherently interesting things, and it’s always satisfying to study them.

    Also, sentence diagramming can be more interesting than you think. Might I humbly recommend this post of mine: https://linguischtick.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/the-shape-of-sentences/

    • I’ll read it. I have nothing against studying grammar for those who enjoy it, but not everyone does. What I object to is the unexamined conviction that everyone needs to study grammar, that poor grammar is a clear sign of poor mental function, or that studying grammar will turn the unliterary into good writers and graceful conversationalists. I learned from experience that although I love the theory and principles behind the internal combustion engine, I’m ham-handed when confronted with an actual machine–a mechanical dunderhead despite two years of instruction. On the other hand, I had a teacher who could barely string two coherent sentences together and yet worked magic on cars. I’m not convinced that studying grammar would have given Stan any insight into the human mind, but when it came to cars, he had a sixth sense.

      • Well, I was thinking specifically of people who engage in the study of linguistics. Understanding the human mind through the study of language is the goal of many linguists. Obviously this is not something everyone wants to do, and it’s definitely not something anyone needs to do. But it’s good that at least someone is doing it. I can’t say whether Stan would derive any practical benefit from studying linguistics (but I’m sure he would have found it interesting!).


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