How much grammar is enough?

Let’s get real about grammar.
What is grammar about?  I’m talking the rules here, not the general word “grammar” that includes things like  syntax and rhetoric, great sentences and  paragraphs, eloquence, oratory, formal verses informal and conversational writing, and so on.

Grammar is about rules. Merriam-Webster’s gives this among other definitions: “speech or writing evaluated according to its conformity to grammatical rules.”  In other words it’s about whether or not you and I obey the rules when writing.  The rules are about the accepted ways speakers and writers do their thing. It’s about writing according to the rule book on writing.

Will it make you a great writer?
Brooks Landon, celebrated professor of English and writing at the University of Iowa, in his lectures on the sentence in the Great Courses videos, puts it this way: “Grammar won’t teach you to write well.”

Grammar concerns naming the parts of speech and, again, the rules for avoiding mistakes that go against common accepted usage.  Translation: Knowing the rules of grammar well can help prevent you from embarrassing yourself when you publish your blog post.

So, then, how much grammar  is enough?  “Enough” means you know what you are doing, that you know the correct forms.  Not that you are duty-bound to always follow them.  But if you are going to violate one of those rules, it’s far better to do so knowingly than out of ignorance.

So you need to know your grammar–and spelling, or at least be diligent to look them up when you’re not sure you’re right.

There are lots of grammar blogs and books available.
I see frequent posts on grammar online, and that is good.  But with one exception:  There’s a lot more to good writing than correct grammar. It’s good to keep that in mind. For example:

How do we write sentences that keep our readers in suspense right there in the midst of the sentence until its end? (Answer: the periodic sentence.)

How do we write sentences that flow naturally like the way we speak, often by association, that mimic the way we humans think, and that allow our readers to follow our thinking, sentences written with upfront honesty? (We’re talkin’ the so called “loose sentence’, also called the cumulative sentence.)

What is the pathway to power writing?
How do we write words and phrases that are poetic and lyrical, that make our readers laugh and cry or feel generally wonderful?

Ah, now we’re way beyond grammar.
We’re into the glorious realm of syntax and rhetoric, the art and discipline and techniques that make for fine writing, that made Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens and so many others famous and worth reading.

Your turn:
How do you see the difference between grammar and rhetoric?  Is it important to you?

 

 

2 thoughts on “How much grammar is enough?

  1. Amy Deardon

    I always thought grammar was irrelevant until I started getting copy-edited, and realized how much better my prose flowed. An important trick is to end each sentence with a strong word, each paragraph with a strong sentence, and each chapter with a strong thought. BTW what is a “periodic sentence”? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Amy,
      You are right of course the point of strongest emphasis is at the end–probably because it’s what we remember most easily, being fresh in our minds.

      A periodic sentence is one in which the main meaning; often the main clause occurs at the end. Hence you, as reader, are kept in a sort of suspense till the end. This is the periodic sentence’s advantage and comes in handy at times, but it can easily get confusing. Example:

      Having counted the people in the room and after writing on her notepad for a few minutes, Helen stomped out of the room.

      Linguists believe that this type of sentence gained popularity with the Roman emperor Cicero. It is still taught in a lot of books on writing as the most sophisticated and acceptable way to write.

      Yet professional writers, while still using periodic sentences at times, also quite frequently use a cumulative sentence:

      Helen stomped out of the room, having counted the people in the room and after writing on her notepad for a few minutes.

      The advantage of the cumulative sentence is that it most often announces the subject of the sentence early-on and hence the reader is clued upfront as to what’s going on. The loosely added phrases act like comments on the main subject (main clause: subject plus verb/predicate). Such sentences flow often poetically, can be short, medium, or long in length, but are usually clear and easy to follow.

      See more here:
      http://grammar.about.com/od/il/g/loosenterm.htm

      Also, check my post on this here: http://keystowriting.com/2011/11/

      I will likely be writing a followup to the above post shortly to further illustrate the modern loose/cumulative sentences and the variety of add-ons possible.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Bill

      Reply

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