Grammar knowledge is an indispensable tool to the writer. With it she writes stronger, clearer sentences and discovers true freedom from a confidence that tells her she knows every character she’s writing: She chooses her words with care and correctly inflects them. She arranges them into measured syntactical units and orders them in a sequence that conveys her ideas clearly and accurately and fits the rhythm of her prose. Her writing is deliberate—each word, phrase, and clause a conscious act. Her writing becomes authentic, and in time she will discover her voice, which, given the right circumstances and an ounce of luck, may gift her recognition.
Without grammar knowledge the writer only guesses. He writes with intent but leaves gaps between ideas in the mind and ideas on the page. Like throwing darts at a board in the dark he often misses his mark. His writing loses clarity and suffers diffidence while he struggles to find freedom in written expression. To compensate for what’s missing, he might copy the style of others, cast his sentences the way they cast theirs, relying on the same words and syntactic constructions they use to articulate his ideas. His writing stagnates and may never find recognition.
Understanding grammar is understanding words. Words, like chemical elements, do different things in distinctive forms or when paired with others. In a way, writing is similar to lab work. Before stepping in a lab, chemists must take care with and understand the properties of the chemical elements they’re working with. Writers, like chemists, should use that same degree of care and understanding while writing. The difference between the writer described in the first paragraph and the writer in the second is that the first has a command over her words. She understands the roles of words in her sentences—how word choice, position, and inflection affect meaning—just as a chemist understands the role of chemical elements in her lab.
For almost a decade I was the writer in the second paragraph. I had been writing without caring to understand grammar. As a writer I was lazy and lacked discipline—I knew grammar was important to writers and the craft, but for too long I put off learning it. I was naïve and thought freedom in writing didn’t care about its correctness. When at last the time came to write as a professional, I realised I was wrong. As though forced awake from a trance, I suddenly saw myself—a foreign writer, an imposter who wrote by copying the style of others. I had neither voice nor identity.
In college I studied journalism and communications to improve my writing, but after three years disappointment overshadowed me. My professors had no time to teach good grammar, but they did teach me how to write for the news: How to write headlines and leads. How to punctuate quotations. They taught me the inverted pyramid and other structures for writing news copy. Perhaps their most useful lesson was that brevity accomplishes clear and confident writing, a tenet useful to any writer. But they taught me to write one way only, instead of teaching me how to write. All my sentences and transitions read the same. From only a handful of choices did I choose my words, selected for me as though placed in a blister pack for the ill. Without knowing how to apply good grammar, how could I apply what I did learn to other writing arenas? Trying was hopeless. I went through college with a festering gap in my knowledge that I almost went mad picking at.
I was chagrined to admit that I would only feel better about my writing if I dedicated time to learning grammar. After a writing internship and disastrous interview at a small publisher I spent the next year teaching myself, more determined than ever to learn. I bought books—at least a dozen—and read most of them cover to cover. I subscribed to YouTube channels and took online tests. I read and practised until the snow came and left to make way for the heat and humidity. I adopted a life of erudition and looked for editing work to supplement my learning, each job improving from the last as my grammatical awareness increased. I could read much more clearly. Each sentence became a string of syntactic units to be rephrased and repositioned. I could understand verbs, their tenses, and their agreements with subjects. Word specificity began to matter, too. I began to see the why of how some things worked in writing while others didn’t. I noticed, too, a voice beginning its whisper in my queries and emails with clients—my voice, finally. I developed confidence and an authentic freedom in my writing I hadn’t experienced before. The language was all starting to come together.
Later I enrolled in a university publishing program and chose a grammar course as an elective, which to my satisfaction I found easy. My writing continued its transformation, and so, too, did my editing. I could write a sentence, dismember it into its components, and correctly re-arrange it, carefully choosing and inflecting my words, to fit the music of a piece of writing. Each part worked with another the way it should, like a well-built engine.
If you want to learn good grammar, I want to help. I want to share with you that freedom of expression you get in writing when you’re clear headed and confident about the grammatical choices you make. Each week from now on I’ll write a grammar topic and post it on this blog. I’ll start from the beginning, at the basics—the eight functions of words, sometimes called the eight parts of speech. Next week I’ll start with the easiest of the eight: nouns and pronouns. Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment if you’ve found an error or would like to add anything to what I’ve written here.