Lots of you have asked me, “What about grammar?”
Great question. I may be the wrong person to answer it!
You see, I did not major in English. I got my degree in history, and earned my Master’s in theology. I’ve studied five other languages and have learned to speak well in two of them. But as far as sentence diagramming? Well, I hardly remember that unit in my honor’s English class… like all good public schooled kids. (Why crowd your brain with sentence diagrams when there were BOYS to flirt with?)
But this scant knowledge of grammar (as in, knowing the names for all the parts of speech, understanding sentence constructions, etc.) did not stop me from being a ghostwriter or an editor. In fact, I was the senior editor over a period of three years for one publication and the managing editor for two book projects that involved major revisions of the submitted content since the contributors were not writers.
How could businesses trust me with these publications if I didn’t have “training” in grammar, punctuation and proper syntax?
I am a competent native speaker who reads and writes a lot.
Most of us already have a strong grasp of English grammar. Native speakers of any language know if a sentence is correctly formed by how it sounds. That is the first level of grammar awareness: being able to form sentences that sound right to other native speakers. Any native speaker over the age of five does this effortlessly.
Certainly there are regional slip-ups. In my region, there are people who say, “She don’t have to go to the store right now because she don’t have a car.” And that sounds right to people from around here.
But by and large, if a person reads and writes, speaks and listens, a native speaker will learn 95% of the grammar patterns that he or she needs to function successfully as both a writer and speaker.
So what about that niggly five percent? Should we work on grammar and punctuation every single year of school, cycling through the same terms and constructions, beating those terms into hormonally resistant brains, when native speakers don’t really grasp the meaning of “adverbial clauses,” but use them successfully whenever they chat for sixteen hours on the phone, never taking a single breath, feet flopped over the sides of the “good chairs” in the living room, reminding me when I get a call that they are “…on the other line. Can you make it short, please?”
I say “Stop the madness!” (And give me the phone…)
I have a few tips for how to handle that five percent of grammar we misuse:
Read widely. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read newspaper articles, online reviews of movies and music, blogs, magazines, Shakespeare’s sonnets, poetry, field guides, flyers from the supermarket, classics and contemporary authors. Read it all.
The special skill of line editing is working with words. A mastery of good syntax–how words are strung together well–can come in only two ways: by spending the first twenty-five years of one’s life in a drawing room with E. B. White, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bowen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, John Fowles, Langston Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, James Baldwin and John Updike or by reading their works and those of other writers whose choice of words and word arrangement establishes our standards of literate communication. (The Elements of Editing, Plotnik)
Copy good writing. Copy favorite passages. Copy poems.
- Watch TV
I’m serious. Actors express their native language in the most sophisticated and nuanced use you will hear. Television writers design scripts to cause viewers to laugh, feel suspense, and to engage with the story. The actors take the written words and bring them to life correctly. It is rare that you hear a glaring misuse of English in a sit-com. If you do, it is because it is a part of the character’s personality or regional weakness which is often obvious to everyone on the show. Movies and books on tape also fill a similar function. Listen to radio countdowns and talk radio shows. Go to live performances (plays). Get around masterful native speakers any time you can.
For written skills, I still think dictation is the way to grow. Kids are learning usage in context and are gently challenging themselves at a higher and higher level as they age and select harder material.
- Grammar programs
Go ahead and teach grammar using a program three times in your child’s education: one year in elementary school to teach parts of speech, one year in junior high using a program like Winston Grammar or Daily Grams (or whatever you like—they are all equally ineffective), and two years in high school (through study of a foreign living language like French, or a so-called dead one like Greek or Latin). Whatever didn’t stick when you taught grammar conscientiously will be covered much more effectively when your kids learn a foreign language. They will backdate all that information to their understanding of English.
- Foreign language instruction
Learning another language does more to teach the content of grammar (what it is, why it works, how it works) than studying English grammar. Can you think why? It’s because you can’t rely on your ear to guide you. You are required to learn the rules in order to speak in coherent sentences. Suddenly prepositional phrases matter. Knowing whether the adjective comes before the noun or after is really important, and relevant. As a result, foreign language study is a fabulous way to learn grammar with your kids.
- Use grammar references for the rest
Seriously. We all do. Editors have more grammar references than anyone. Whenever I am confused or uncertain, I pop open Nitty Gritty Grammar or Woe is I and double check. Grammar check on the computer is marvelous for at least making you rethink your choice. Sometimes grammar check is wrong… and you know how you know? It sounds wrong to you. That’s how it works.
Bottom line: grammar matters, but not in the way you might remember from school. A sturdy knowledge of grammar gives kids the ability to play with language (turning nouns into verbs or adjectives into nouns). Manipulation of grammar offers writers the chance to subvert reader expectations, which in turn creates delight or surprise! Grammatical accuracy is important but not nearly as elusive to native speakers as some writing programs suggest. Rather, you want grammar instruction to offer your children the higher order skills: grammar as glamour—a gateway to power in writing.