Grammar, hmmm. I found it surprisingly difficult to write this post. As it turns out, I am not entirely sure how I feel about the subject.
During the years I toiled as a tech writer, I remember snickering at the office memos our hard-working office admin sent out each week, sprinkled with random capitalization and odd use of quotes (Do “NOT” use the microwave). Along with my fellow writers, I offered some attempts at gentle correction, only to provoke an angry email response along the lines of What is you’re problem??? And yet another wedge was hammered between those of us who saw grammar errors leaping from the page and those who either didn’t see or didn’t care.
There seems to be an unhealthy idea swirling in the ether of our society (or at least certain portions of society) that worrying about grammar is elitist. Standards have become so lax that caring even a little bit about proper usage seems to mark you as some kind of cranky, obsessive English teacher, the kind that would whack your hands with a ruler for a misplaced apostrophe.
Many people seem to think that being a writer means being one of these Ms. McGrundy types. I’ve been asked if I spend my spare time diagramming sentences and musing on the difference between the subjunctive versus the objective tense. Not exactly. Most often, I’m simply trying to make sure I can get my point across without using too many passive verbs.
It turns out I am not immune to the culture around me. Worrying about some of the more arcane intricacies of grammar can seem fiddly and tedious. Some rules don’t stick in my head no matter how often I look them up. (That versus which for instance. I vaguely recall something about cats that are black and cats which are black . . . but it doesn’t help.)
For several months, I had a critique partner who offered little input about my story-telling abilities but provided volumes of carefully detailed examples of where I had gone tragically wrong with grammar rules. I had to think back to that long-suffering office admin and wince.
We wrangled back and forth between her rigid adhesion to super-correct usage versus my own more Humpty Dumpty-esque approach of making words mean just what I choose. My position? If you’re writing contemporary fiction, you need to be able to express your ideas in the current style of writing and talking. Do you want the voice you create in your reader’s mind to sound like Ms. McGrundy the English teacher? It may or may not be appropriate to your story and genre. (Don’t even get me started on dialogue. People, not even story people, do not speak in perfect, complete, grammatically correct sentences.)
I just can’t believe that it’s really a good idea to grab hold of one rule and cling to it regardless of how awkward the resulting sentence may be. Usage changes. What was once commonplace now sounds odd, although it may very well be perfectly correct. I say go ahead and end that sentence with a preposition, if that’s the direction you’re headed. And commas? Sprinkle them with impunity! (Ok, I realize I am shaky ground here. My name is Robin, and I, am, a, comma addict.)
But wait. Let me dial this back a little . . . in the end, grammar does matter, for one simple reason: clarity. Grammar helps us get the message across. And so, while I will never be a grammar maven, I will continue to use every single tool at my disposal to figure out how to tell a good story, even if that means looking up the difference between that and which.
Every. Freaking. Time.
Robin Laborde is not sure exactly how long she has been a member of Pikes Peak Writers but she enjoys it very much. She worked as a technical writer for over ten years and has had nonfiction articles published in newspapers and magazines. While she is currently writing a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, she dreams of flying to the moon in a spaceship made from butterfly wings.