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  • Mark Meier

In Defense of Grammar

by Terri Karsten

Grammar? Ugh! I can’t do it. I just don’t get it. Boring! I’ve heard all these comments whenever I mention studying grammar, but really grammar is a writer’s friend. And whether you are ‘good at grammar’ or not, I’d be willing to bet you already know a lot of grammar. It helps to think of grammar as a set of rules that explain how the language works. At its best, grammar is descriptive, not proscriptive. That means grammar explains how a native speaker of the language puts sounds together to make sense to other speakers. The key word here is explains. It is better to think of grammar as a guidebook than a rulebook. Whenever you write or speak, you routinely rely on grammar (or your own sense of the right way to say something.) For instance, consider the following example: A pirate is rashly swinging a cutlass over his head on the poop deck, while a swashbuckler impatiently waits for his turn to try the new sword. This is probably a sentence you never heard before, but you can understand it without any trouble. So even if you never heard those words in that order before, the meaning is clear because you have a strong sense of grammar. You could also change the sentence, using different words in different order, to mean essentially the same thing. That flamboyant sword fighter is impatient to try out the new weapon, but the careless pirate is on the poop deck swinging the sword overhead. Each person wanting to talk about this interaction between a pirate and a swashbuckler might use slightly different words and word order, yet listeners can understand. To show how much we use the structure of English to help us understand each other, all I have to do is rearrange the words in the sentence. If I randomly list the words, breaking the ‘grammar rules’ of how words go together, the result is nonsense. Sword a while pirate new swashbuckler a swinging rashly the deck cutlass turn over poop waits his his on head the is for a to try impatiently. This sentence does not follow grammar rules, so it doesn’t make sense. So, if we know so much about grammar already, why study it? The thing is, there are a lot of different variations in how English is spoken. If two speakers understand each other, both have mastered the ‘rules of grammar’ for their dialect. What most grammar books do is describe one specific dialect of English, called Standard English, which is useful for situations such as business, education, and formal speaking. Standard English is also useful for most fiction writing. Knowing Standard English grammar helps the writer put words together to communicate clearly and efficiently. And who do you suppose makes the ‘rules’ for Standard English? Why writers and speakers, of course. People who use the language help shape the language over time. That gives writers a great deal of power and some responsibility as well. Is it possible to write very well without thinking about grammar? Of course! Especially if your version of English is close to Standard or if you have read widely. However, if your sense is a bit weaker, or there are problems in your writing like fragments and confusing pronouns, then studying grammar can help you improve your writing. Just remember that the real goal of grammar study is not just to memorize a bunch of useless rules, but rather to make your writing more clear, more elegant, and more compelling for your readers. (adapted from: “Introduction.” A Pirate’s Guide to Grammar. By Terri Karsten. Winona, MN: Wagonbridge Publishing, 2015. 5-7)

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