Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In Defense of Grammar - By Kathleen Delaney

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, gray hair twisted into a knot at the back of her neck, short, and given to smock tops. She also wore tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks and was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author would 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 of how to impart knowledge on how to construct a story, build characters, and incorporate tension. Those things I would learn much later. But what she did do was empathize the importance of a good story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar in the telling of that story.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He ignored the story importance 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 because no one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

Maybe it was because I grew up in Catholic school, back in the days when they were staffed by nuns in habits who were addicted to diagramming sentences, but I’ve always 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 very different meaning to a sentence than what you had intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. The story stops while the reader tries to figure out just what that word was exactly and what the writer meant by it. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting to the reader that they put it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is in comments put up on the Internet. Especially now, in this climate of vitriolic comments on the government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or about their neighbor across the street, the one with the kids who dare to play on the sidewalk. The Internet is replete with comments, most of them grammatically incorrect, some of them indecipherable.

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 any real 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.

And I wonder, where were the sixth grade teachers of those who favor us with their thoughts on the Internet? Or are they so intent on getting their pearls of wisdom posted for the entire world to see that they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they have missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know what the delete button is for, or some of the things posted would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to edit. Re-read what you have just written. Does it make sense? Do the sentences flow together to present your thought accurately, and is it a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end?

And, most importantly, if you have something to say, something you think is important, do you really want to say it in a way that makes you sound like an idiot?

More people will read your comments, or your blog, or your posted comments on Facebook than will ever read your novel, which, I am sure, you have re-read and re-written many times. So, whether you are a writer or just the person making the occasional comment, 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.

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