I recently started relearning how to play the guitar after a rather long hiatus. It’s not like I ever learned how to play it properly in the first place — so I’m still a beginner. And at times, I find it frustrating. I just want to pick the thing up and rip out a song, but I’m constantly tripping over my own fingers, and let’s not even talk about the pain that comes from pressing your fingertips against thick metal strings, repeatedly and for extended periods of time.
Writing’s not so different from playing the guitar. Sometimes we get hung up on the technicalities of the language, and the creative flow is hindered. It’s not easy to rip out a short story when you’re worrying about whether you can end a sentence with a preposition or whether your terminal punctuation marks go inside or outside of the quotation marks. These kinds of setbacks can be painful.
Learning the rules is a drag when you want to fly, but to master any craft, it’s essential to build a solid foundation. Learn the basics; memorize and practice them until they become second nature, and then you can really take off.
Grammar Helps You Write Better
You don’t have to learn grammar in order to write — just like you don’t have to learn how to read music to play the guitar — but it sure helps if you want to make music instead of a bunch of noise. Your poem might be captivating, your short story compelling, and your essay might be a veritable masterpiece…when read aloud. But if in writing, the grammar is shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time getting published or finding readers.
Even with years of practice and learning, questions about grammar continue to arise. I’ve seen college professors (who taught English) wonder about the rules of good grammar or turn to a handy reference book to look something up.
That’s why I believe that good grammar is a commitment, and for writers, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not what makes a writer, but lack of good grammar can definitely break a writer.
The Grammar Lifestyle
I’ve always been interested in grammar and writing well. But since I launched this blog back in 2007, I’ve become increasingly dedicated to understanding grammar. Oh, I break the rules from time to time, but I try to know which rules I’m breaking and why.
Today I thought I’d share some tips for making good grammar part of your daily life. These tips are taken from my own experience, habits, and practices. All of them have helped me expand my grammar skills and become a better writer.
- Stop being lazy: When you’re not sure if you’ve written a sentence correctly, take a couple of minutes to look it up instead of rewriting it or hoping for the best.
- Invest in writing tools and resources: These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style (aff link).
- Make it a chore: Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
- Talk about it: Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers are interested in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar-related issues can be a good way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
- Put it to practice: Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature.
Good Grammar for Writers
Writing isn’t really about grammar; it’s about communication. A writer’s job is to share ideas, inform, and entertain. Yet grammar is essential to clear writing. If you write without understanding grammar, it’s like playing a game without learning the rules. You’ll be all over the place, your performance will be a big mess, and you won’t have a very good shot at winning.
So make grammar part of your daily life. Get it into your routine and embrace it as part of the work you have to do in order to write well.
All great points about grammar. I think too many people have simply decided there are too many complicated rules, and have given up trying. They figure they’ll never get it right, so why bother?
Oh, and the guitar? I tried playing when I was a teenager, but could never get past the bar chords–my fingers just weren’t strong enough to hold down the strings, not to mention that my pinky fingers are just too darn short!
I still can’t play a barre chord, and it’s driving me crazy (B! B! B!). I’m determined, however, even if it means getting a different guitar (mine is large and the strings are high). Yes, I think some folks are just overwhelmed by grammar rules, but if you take it slowly, it’s not so difficult. I always cringe when people say, “I’m not a word person,” as if that justifies mauling the English language. There’s really no excuse not to learn the basics except sheer laziness.
I think the average person blows it off with the excuse that they want to sound on paper the way they talk. They don’t seem to get how bad it looks in the context of being written down.
Unfortunately I can still hear Mrs. Polen from sixth grade asking: “Does that look right?” Today it often is, but the tape is hard to shake.
I agree — but sometimes I forsake proper grammar in favor of writing with a conversational tone, so while sometimes I think it’s just an excuse, other times I think the writer is making a conscious decision about voice. I once took a class on the history and evolution of the English language and learned that it’s a living language, constantly changing because the people who speak and write English use it in new ways (sometimes creative and sometimes incorrect).
Maybe I overstated my point. I had something more formal in mind where the casual tone did not come across well. I’m all for conversational tone in the right context; and I’m glad to see contractions being more accepted in writing than when I was in elementary and high school.
Ah, that makes sense. I wonder if contractions will ever lose their apostrophes.
Cheers Melissa! Our culture has become so lazy about language. Brava to champions of grammatical accuracy! Kudos on the guitar playing, now you can really rock out on table tops. 🙂
Thanks, Karen! I haven’t thought about rocking the guitar on table tops, but it sounds good to me 😉
You mentioned the class in the history and evolution of the English language. Did you read “The Secret Life of Words” by Henry Hitchings (reminds me of Henry Higgins) (2008, Farrer, Straus & Giroux)? After I reread you reply to my comment I noticed it on the new book shelf.
No, we didn’t use that book for the class, but it sound interesting. I love how similar the author’s name is to Henry Higgins 🙂
Living in the South, I hear many people using incorrect grammar. Examples:
“I seen” instead of “I have seen”
“with you and I” instead of “with you and me”
I have even heard the second example in TV ads. That’s sad.
How will increased texting impact grammar AND spelling?
These mistakes aren’t limited to the South. I live on the west coast and they are common here as well. I don’t worry too much about poor spoken grammar, because English is a living language, constantly changing. I suspect that eventually some of these constructs will become acceptable and correct. The language has to serve the people who speak it, not the other way around.