Thursday, April 1, 2021


 It is a little-known fact that I chose first-person POV for my early stories in large part because I was uncomfortable with my grammar. Writing in first person I could always say any quirks were indicative of the POV character’s grammar, not mine.  (I tell this to anyone who asks, but the fact remains little known because of how few people listen to me.) I came through public school at a time when “linguistics” was a thing, and linguistics has only two parts to any sentence: the noun and the verb. To me, you might as well speak Latin as discuss subjects, predicates, participles, gerunds and the like. (Actually worse. I have some idea of common Latin phrases, which I have learned on an ad hoc basis.)


While never taught “proper” grammar, I did read. A lot. Non-fiction when I was younger, and the weekly news magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. (I miss those magazines. The Internet has largely made them irrelevant, but I enjoyed look back on events with even a few days’ context. It was also nice to get informed, rational opinions from people who had earned the privilege and not anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection. You know, like me.) Over time I developed a keen ear for what “sounded right” that has served me well over the years.


I have learned a few things. “Affect” vs. “Effect;” “fewer” vs. “less.” I now recognize the perils of passive voice. This led me to make an effort to learn “proper” grammar several years ago, during which time I leaned a key fact:


Much of what an English teacher would call “proper” grammar is bullshit.


I understand creating rules of grammar was an effort to ensure clarity in writing and they served that purpose well. I’m in favor of anything that gives the reader a fighting chance. But following, or enforcing, rules just because they exist creates writing that is too often out of step with how people actually interact. This is eloquently shown in Winston Churchill’s famous dismissal of the edict never to end a sentence with a preposition: “That is something up with which I shall not put.”


Suffice to say, if the meaning is clear, the grammar is almost certainly close enough. If getting the clarity you want is hanging you up, then the problem may well be grammatical, in which case it’s time to crack the book. Not that you should follow what you find slavishly, but you’ll at least figure out where the problem is.




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