Essential writing skills: grammar – the writer’s playground

It was Winston Churchill, I believe, who once insisted that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which he would not put.

Wright_Typewriter2As any of us who have dragged through High School English know, grammar is often touted as the basic building block of writing. Which, in many ways, it is; you can’t write things that scan properly without it. It’s there for a reason.

The onus is on authors to get it right, though that doesn’t mean losing perspective. Grammar is a tool, not an end-goal. The so-called ‘grammar Nazis’ who nit-pick authors for any technical glitch that they can attribute to the writing don’t achieve much other than showing themselves up as small-minded.

It happens though. Some years ago a book reviewer – not someone writing the reader commentaries one gets on Amazon, but a journalist commissioned to prepare a discursive article about one of my books – took a ‘point off’ for my use of ‘impacted’ as a verb. I’d done it deliberately, and it’s correct to do so. ‘Impact’ began life in the early seventeenth century English as a transitive verb. It’s still such today, though it is more often used as a noun. A fact that gives due context to the remark – which was, of course, an attempt to put me in my place; simple bullying of a kind that, alas, happens quite often in this sort of book review. (‘I can’t write books myself but I will trawl your work for anything I can claim proves that you are incompetent and ignorant as a book author’).

So the point about grammar? Just like musical rules don’t constitute good music alone, grammar alone doesn’t constitute good writing. There has to be a dynamic to written style – something that isn’t contained in the grammar rules, but which exploits them, perhaps even bends them. Advertisers and journalists do it all the time – how often do you see sentences that start with a conjunction?

This doesn’t mean being ignorant of grammar. You have to know the rules in order to break them. But once you have them down pat you can play with them. For stylistic purposes, the rules to bend are typically those associated with words – like, don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Actually, judiciously, you can. It means finding a balance; bending the rules enough to be interesting, without being blatantly egregious. It’s a skill, but one that comes with enough practise in writing. It’s as much an essential skill as any other – giving your writing what, in due homage to Frank Zappa, I always call ‘writing eyebrows’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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15 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: grammar – the writer’s playground

  1. Hi Matthew,

    I try to write effectively, but I’m not always aware of things that pull readers out of stories. I found it useful to use various apps to scrub my writing. But that only helps in discovering divergence from accepted writing practices.

    What about our characters, and their unique voices? I would love is an app I could “teach” how to grade Lady Alessandran’s speech and thought patterns. Instead, I use Scrivener to stack up scenes she is in, and read down through them. She isn’t so bad, since she is in only six scenes. But Deheya is in 48 of the 83 scenes. And she talks and talks and talks.


    1. It’s one of the bigger challenges authors face – being able to step back from the emotional pull they have to what they’re writing, and try to perceive how a reader would receive it. Very, very challenging. It’s where beta readers come in. Also putting the MS in a drawer for a few weeks and then re-reading it, from cold.

  2. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    Getting grammar right is not easy. Someone always has a different viewpoint. A new reader for my manuscript told me I needed the word “would”. I had left it out because it was a person talking. Yes, it would have been correct to use, but all of us do not speak perfect English. I left it out and sent her an explanation. She’s had terrific input and I’d hate to lose her as a reader.

  3. I recall one particularly ridiculous criticism. A reader pointed out that I could not use the word, “Hegemony” as part of the name of a fictional government, because it had been used before. Apparently she believed the word itself was copyrighted. She also noted that I couldn’t replace it with, “Empire” because that had been used in the Star Wars saga (apparently she was well-read…NOT! I can think of 100 other examples.) Such people have been frustrating to me. I’ve been training myself not to let idiots get to me. I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I think you were indeed the target of bullying rather than any effort at correction.

    I think the saying goes, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, administrate.” Perhaps we should add a bit and say those who can’t administrate, are critics. Since there are actually useful and productive critics who don’t deserve insult, we can finish with, those who can’t critique, bully.

    1. You can’t copyright words, of course. Or, I’m told, book titles made of plain English. I agree definitely about the review. I got another weird one yesterday over my coal biography – this one broadcast on national network radio. The reviewer judged my book as if it were meant to be a contemporary commentary on the current state of the local coal industry, by a journalist. Of course the content fell short, but that’s because I wasn’t writing such a book – I actually wrote a science geek social history, and made that very clear as purpose. Given the context it rendered the review a pure exercise in straw-man invalidation and I have to wonder at the guy’s motive – NZ being such a small community, I find the usual one is that I’ve stumbled into a territory the reviewer believes is theirs exclusively to write in. One has to accept such things, of course, but it’s irksome.

      1. I saw the book cover highlighted on your site. Just looking at that, I gathered it was about the “history” of coal in NZ, not it’s contemporary state of affairs. But I expect I only gleaned so much because I am a genius [rolling my eyes].

        I expect you did step on someone’s toes, especially if you wrote a single critical word throughout the entire book. The coal industry in many countries is under fire, and supporters of the industry quite reactionary.

        I don’t know your views on coal, but I strongly believe it needs to be gotten rid of. It’s damaging to the environment and damaging to humanity. There are less poisonous alternatives we should be pursuing.

        If you mentioned “black lung” even once in your book, I imagine there will be a backlash. And if reviewers have to fall back on the logical fallacy of the tried and true “strawman,” then it sounds like your book has no “real” flaws to criticize.

        1. I agree. The whole theme of the book was about stopping using it. The stuff contributes 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Ouch. Quite apart from the fact that we are burning an ancient and irreplaceable fossil resource in what on that timespan is a flash. And then there is the human cost, as you point out. I have some cautious hopes for fusion power but whether the recent steps add up to the necessary breakthrough seems unclear. Am watching that one with interest.

        1. I am pretty sure the reviewer failed to read the introduction (which expliciily stated the purpose) or comprehend that a book has to carry an integrated argument and is more than an assemblage of parts.

  4. I love this post, because I am a grammar junkie, but I’m not a “grammar Nazi.” If you ask me to critique something you wrote, it’ll be very hard for me not to correct the grammar. Having parents and stepparents who are English teachers/professors and writers can do that to you! But (conjunction!) I’ve worked very hard to turn off the grammar editor and focus on content, depending on the nature of the work. (Reading high school students’ essays for their college applications, for example, I find a range of pieces, from grammar edits and content tweaks to needing the student to focus on a topic before worrying about the grammar.)

    What I find key is not harping on other people’s grammar when it’s not really relevant. Are you giving a speech? Your grammar might matter more then than in a casual conversation — and speaking is not the same as writing. I correct my text messages and tweets, and while I do think that grammar matters on the Internet, I think that fight is a losing one. And I don’t (always) worry about not ending my sentence with a preposition when I’m talking. Most important is being able to understand what the other person is saying. And if that person is a character, let that character speak any way s/he wants!

  5. Fascinating post and comment discussion, Matthew. As I have mentioned, I once knew a life as an academic. To this day, I have difficulty not ending a sentence in a preposition even if it means the writing is stilted. I remain haunted by grammar ghouls from a long ago lifetime but admittedly, their voices are diminished. Thanks, Matthew.

    Oh, and shame on that reviewer for completely missing the context of your book on coal. That just boggles! You are such a professional. Good for you.


    1. I don’t know if the US scene is different, but certainly here in NZ there is a tendency for reviewers to try to prove how intellectually superior they are over an author via the usual empty methods of straw man and false premise assertion. One of the hazards of having a very small writing and media community in which everybody is literally only two or three degrees apart.

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