Writing != Grammar

Having sit through a graduate level, we’re-future-leaders-of-the-profession lecture that somehow included a speech on grammar, subject-verb agreement, and the self-referencing rule of “It’s wrong to start a sentence with it“, I decided that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Thus, you, unlucky peeps, will be now be subjected my un-credentialed, un-certified, no-money-back-guarantee 3 criteria for judging/producing good writing.

  • Does your writing have something to say? An idea? An argument? A pretty picture? Something to enlighten, something to entertain, something that can stand as a will-o’-wisp of a reason for somebody to read it? Something? Anything? If yes, please move on to point #2. If no, please do not pass go, do not collect $200. Unless under absolute compulsion, stop. Don’t write. It’s for the best. Any time now humanity will recognize the need for give out big, prestigious prizes for people who exercised superb judgement by not writing. Don’t ruin your chances to be nominated for such a prize by putting pen to paper, or even worse, making that writing public. Just stop.

On the other hand, if you are under absolute compulsion to write, inflict as much damage as you can. Continue to say nothing, but use the most obtuse language as possible; never resort to one word where three will do; ignore all that is good & embrace the worst the humanities have to offer and produce farragoes, olios, and gallimafries ad nauseum. With any luck, a scholarly veneer, a dignified manner, and a sensitivity for being offended when called upon to explain yourself in as simple terms will see you through your depraved compulsion.

  • Given that you do have something to say, say it. Say it so that I can understand what you’re saying. Say it to communicate your idea, not to broadcast your scholastic credentials. Say it as an act of being in communion with your fellow readers, not to create a cross for them to bear. Say it, then put aside what you have said. Go have a snack (chocolate ice cream is my favorite), and when you’re in a good mood again, read what you have written. How many sentences did you have to read more than once to grasp your own idea? Figure that your readers will have double that number. Is that reasonable? Pretend that it’s a stranger’s work you’re reading. Would you feel charitable towards somebody who demanded that you make that level of effort? If not, have some more ice cream, and then re-write.

Not incidentally, I feel that criterion for clear writing should take care of most grammatical dictates. After all, grammar is a set of rules to help us communicate, not a tyrant we foist on our heads to feel its whip cracked over our backs for no reason other than to remind us of our silliness. This is not a call for anarchy, or a grammar-free world. It is an acknowledgment that if you haven’t a grasp on the basic rules of grammar, no 5-minute-exhortation on anybody’s part, mine included, is going to help you with that. A public forum, one-way verbal assault is a completely inappropriate venue for teaching somebody to write. If they ain’t got it, they ain’t gonna. On the other hand, if you can write clearly, then you’ve got the grammar bit down; if you can’t write clearly because grammar is an obstruction, then down with the tyrant!

  • OK, there isn’t an item #3 on this list. I just felt compelled to say that there were 3 things because it was drilled into my head that lists have at least three items. This brings me to my next point. (Yes! “This”, I could’ve well have written “this thought” or “this statement”, but was the sentence any more ambiguous because I had omitted the subject after “this”?)

Grammar, as much as we practitioners of its ways like to pretend otherwise, is less standardized and less unanimous than the image it projects. What to one may be an absolute, no-other-way-about-it rule, e.g. “Don’t start a sentence with “it””, “Don’t use “this” without specifying a subject.” “Don’t end a sentence in a preposition”, is not only flouted in practice by capable writers but also disputed as legitimate by linguists. Grammar is not holy writ; do not proclaim yourself the true defender of its faith, unless you are prepared for war with adherents from other sects; do not worship at its alter, unless you are ready to sacrifice the purpose of your writing at its command. Use grammar as the tool that it is; don’t be a tool yourself.

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3 Responses to Writing != Grammar

  1. Esa says:

    I’m in that segment that has something to say, frequently struggling to do so in a coherent manner, and having little grasp of the rules of grammar. But I think I have a reasonable ability to string words together, so I make the best of it. There are so many of your points that I wholeheartedly agree with, though my biggest beef is with writers who don’t even try to exhibit some originality in their prose.

  2. Take that!

    “It’s all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.” http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/npr/153709651/the-word-hopefully-is-here-to-stay-hopefully

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