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Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't be afraid of big bad grammar

I was recently invited to write a little piece on grammar for Christine Schimpf’sblog.  Chris has taken my Creative Writing class for the past few years. I had the privilege, week by week, of watching the birth and growth of her fascinating book Nick, the Journey of a Lifetime. Here’s what I wrote for a future post on her blog:

After teaching English and writing for decades, and after edited hundreds of manuscripts, this is what I think: people are way too scared of grammar. They should pay more attention to usage.

Grammar and usage are two different things.

Grammar is a set of rules we follow so our sentences make sense. Think of grammar as the nuts and bolts of the language. Do you understand the meaning of a sentence? If so, it is probably grammatically proper. Most of us understand grammar because we are native speakers who mastered the language before we started going to school.

Usage refers to ways of speaking and writing we follow so our sentences are socially acceptable in our cultural (dialect) group. A word or phrase may be grammatically proper, yet it may be judged to be improper usage by our cultural (dialect) group.

Think of the word “ain’t.” We all understand “ain’t.” It is grammatically proper. However, if you use “ain’t” for reasons other than humor or emphasis (as our President is known to do), you will be branded as uneducated by a certain social (dialect) group of people. Think of usage as style.

For truly thorny problems in usage, I’ve never found a better remedy than old-fashioned sentence diagramming. The mistake I correct most often when I’m editing manuscripts is the lack of parallelism. No one who understands how to diagram a sentence would ever make the mistake of failing to create parallelism in a sentence.

Examples (from Cliff’s Notes):
Right: What counts isn’t how you look but how you behave.
Wrong: What counts isn’t how you look but your behavior.

Diagramming is the math of English. When you learn to diagram, you see clearly the delicious logic of our beautiful, scrumptious language. It’s easy to learn how to diagram sentences. The nuns taught me by the time I was eight years old.

There are many guides to diagramming on the Web. Here is one.

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