Must I bother about grammar?

Everyone has some gaps in their grammar education. No matter how much grammar was pounded into us in class, we didn’t get it all. We might operate on the principle that if something ‘sounds’ right, it is right. Why it is right is often beyond us. The problem is: what sounds fine may be wrong. What we find perfectly acceptable in speech, is not acceptable in written work. Sorry. We must learn the basic rules of grammar, or at least continually improve our knowledge of it.

Pictures need to go from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader without distortion. The more we understand grammar the more we are able to do that. If we don’t use good grammar (except in dialogue when it might not be appropriate), the reader must translate our words to create meaning. That leaves the meaning subjective and imprecise. English has enough ambiguities without creating more with imprecise grammar. In the highly competitive market of children’s books, precise meaning matters.

Being able to name the parts of a sentence doesn’t mean a person can create stories any more than being able to name the notes of a scale means a person can compose music. But composers can probably create more and better music when they understand music theory, and writers probably can create better stories if they understand the parts of a sentence. Any improvement in the tools we use should improve our skills.

I have two vocabularies: spoken and written. I can use ‘like’ incorrectly when speaking and be understood by my friends and family. I don’t use ‘like’ when I mean ‘as if’ in my written vocabulary. When does our casual conversation become literature? Is there a point when our speaking vocabulary moves in transition to our written? And is it a good idea?

I admit that the relaxation of grammar rules can sometimes be colorful and interesting. Most of the time, though, it is just imprecise.

New words, composed because they are more precise than old words, don’t slide into our literature, they jump in. We find them so useful, we embrace them. ‘Network’ as a verb and ‘text’ as a verb create precise information. If the new word gives a clearer picture of the meaning than the old word, it should be accepted. If it does not, we probably should avoid it.

I know I’m being a bit didactic about this and I have to admit that I’d rather read a grammatically challenged, fascinating, intriguing sentence with mundane and imprecise words, than a grammatically correct, boring one. But we can be both fascinating and clear; can’t we?      The problem with writing only grammatically correct sentences is that we might be more expressive, more interesting and even clearer if we break the rules from time to time. Correct grammar can sometimes be inhibiting. We probably write most effectively when we know the rules of good grammar, but don’t always use them.

Most word processing programs include a grammar correction function that will scan documents and offer suggestions on how to improve the placement of words. The grammar checker (which now is in combination with Spell check) isn’t always accurate. I find myself arguing with the checker as it finds what it calls a “sentence fragment” that has a noun and a verb in it. It can be so wrong.

There is, of course, no possibility of a writer ever learning enough grammar to know as much as a copy editor–those amazing creatures who suggest the obvious which you have overlooked or never knew, and who rigorously correct your mistakes. I’m convinced that writers and editors have different kinds of brains, so don’t be discouraged if your editor finds errors weak; editors are there to help you—and accept the fact that they usually know more grammar than writers will ever learn.

Make sure that you understand the correct use of similar words such canvas and canvass, flair and flare, hoard and horde, its and it’s, hanger and hangar, phase and faze and countless others that lie undefined in areas of your brain to intrude on your writing, desecrating a particular fine piece of work. Or, at least, recognize that you need to check on them. Spell check is not helpful here. Then there are the old horrors of words such as of elicit and illicit; eminent, imminent and immanent; illusion and allusion; forbear and forebear; proceed and precede; and many others that wait to slip into your writing and change the meaning.

Once you know the correct word, then you can think about making up your own. Somebody had to invent “computerize,” “interact,” “radical,” and “coo.” Invented and coined words, if used well, can become part of your style, adding zest and zing to your writing.

Clarity and precision in writing is an ever-developing skill acquired by continuing to write.

Writing for Children and Young Adults by Marion Crook