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Do We Still Need Grammar?: Form and Function For the New Writer

This is a topic with many layers, and I’m sure that some people will argue with me, but that’s fine. Hear me out.

We writers live in an altered head-space. There’s this whole other world in which we dwell where the function of a piece is more often the goal, and the form can just suck it. “People don’t speak in form!” you say. People talk in a straight line: the fastest way between two points. They may stop, start, stutter, snicker, etc, just to get the full value of the point across. So why should a writer, whose singular goal is to communicate, give a crap about the form?

In the artistic medium, does form follow function, or can an equally pithy argument be made for the opposite? And if so, then why bother ever learning grammar?

I get it. You’re tired of the word-nazis jumping on your back when you end a sentence in a preposition, or look at you like you’re a Martian for suggesting that some phrase is a modern idiom and therefore is correct. I’m a writer too, and I happen to have a very auditory, free-flowing style (as if you couldn’t tell). I write loads of dialogue, in the vernacular. I completely understand why you may wish to eschew all literary tradition and go for the balls. But before you do– stop throwing shade at me– before you blast “the man,” and tell me why you hate when people correct you, let me lay some knowledge down.

Grammar is (here comes the obligatory metaphor) the etiquette of communication.

Huh?

It’s simple really. When you were a baby, your mother presumably beat when to say “excuse me” and “please” into your soft little skull. The reason being that etiquette governs behavior. No matter what our individual backgrounds, situations, whether or not we have had a shitty day, or our mother just dropped dead, etc, etiquette is there to level the playing field. Manners smooth our contact so that at any time two completely different people who have no knowledge of each other’s circumstances can come together and have a pleasant and constructive interaction. If you bump into someone, you apologize, so that that person (who could be ANYONE) doesn’t assume you have done this thing intentionally, and punch you in the mouth. Etiquette is a clue that all parties involved should take a step back and separate their emotions from all the forthcoming events. There’s enough confusion in the world. Manners keep us from being homicidal.

Grammar is the same damn thing (and incidentally, good grammar keeps me from being homicidal).

English is confusing to those who come to it as a second language (I know because I teach it to them). Historically, English is made up of Greek, Latin, Middle French, Gaelic, Flemish….blah blah. And it changes all the time. What little grammar we have is in a constant state of flux. The order in which we place words, the modifiers we use, the punctuation, it all changes the meaning, sometimes by huge leaps. If you need a soul-crushingly beautiful tutorial on this, watch the film Wit,  starring Emma Thompson. These little “rules” are the form, and it is in how the form is or is not ignored that the function is revealed.

Tables, chairs, stools, ottomans all have that familiar shape: parts that sit on the ground and parts that are flat. Why? Because they all have similar functions: keeping things off the ground. Whether or not you write poetry or History text books, your function is similar. You are communicating a message, and therefore you should have similar form.

“Art” can be both in how the rules are skillfully obeyed or in how they are assiduously ignored, but they are still there. Indeed, if they are absent, they are creating a kind of rhetorically significant negative space. Look at the poetry of e e cummings. Much of the entendre and emotional significance was derived from the lack of punctuation and capitalization. It was flying in the face of the standard model, knowingly, intentionally, but with great alacrity, as if the poem knows you are waiting to find that big letter, and that anticipation chains you. If we go back to our metaphor, cummings is like that guy in the “totes-adorbs” bunny furry suit who comes up to you at the bowling alley and gets in your bubble, so that he can sashay his fluffy tail against your thigh. He is flouting etiquette, all up in your grill, doing something untoward, and you cannot help but giggle, because God damn that cock-eyed ear and big googlie eyes are so effing cute. He knows he is breaking rules, but he also knows that the mask and fur make that okay, in context.

(Yes, that did, in fact, happen to yours truly.)

Characters can say whatever they want, however suits them best (thanks to Mark Twain’s pioneering efforts in dialect), but you must frame it all in standard English, because you are the only god of context in the world you have created, the only means we have of understanding anything.

Please allow me to present a good example. There is a common mistake I have seen in punctuating a complete sentence that ends abruptly without finishing: the double, or “long dash” vs. the eclipses, or “…”

According to the rules, the dash is used to capture an interruption and the ellipses to imply a stage cue about the emotional state of the speaker.

“She broke his heart when she–“

“What did she do?”

Vs.

“She broke his heart when she…he just fell apart.”

The use of one or the other drastically alters the MEAT, the dramatic staging of the scene. Context is established instantaneously.

Word endings have a similar significance. The use of “bad” vs. “badly”, being but one. “Bad” is a condition, “badly” is a comparison, an evolving process.

“He feels bad.” Implies that the man is a psychopath about to do something terrible, like eat a kitten.

“He feels badly.” Implies that he screwed up and hurt someone’s feelings, and is filled with a sense of all-encompassing regret.

These tiny flags are critical in establishing communication with your reader, who comes from glob-knows what background, doing whatever it is people do where he/she is from. The form must be there, or that poor bastard will be dropped into a black hole that originated in your brain. Even if you are playing with the form, using colloquialisms, you must do so mindfully. Those phrases may disobey some rules, but they also have their own.

It used to be that “ain’t” wasn’t a word. It still gives some people the heebies, except in character speech. Thus, most writers are not going to use the word “ain’t” while writing in the “authorial omniscient voice”. For example, you may see a character say “ain’t” but you almost never see the author use it as follows:

Soldiers don’t worry about whether or not the water through which they are slogging is clean. It just ain’t important.

However, this usage of the colloquialism IS grammatically correct, in context. “Ain’t” has rules. It is one tense, and cannot be changed. You cannot say, “They didn’t care about the water, because it ain’t important.” That phrase mixes tense. “Didn’t” is past tense. “Ain’t” is present. Therefore our original use of “ain’t”, while bending the rules of grammar, still obeys the fundamentals. You can use idioms, but you must use them properly, and with great intention, so that it is obvious what artistic message you are creating.

By using “ain’t” in the authorial voice, you are saying something “meta” about the author, about the perspective. You are drawing the reader’s attention to the voice and implying that it is not the definite voice of God, but is a person with potential biases, a vantage point, etc. Or you are pulling attention to the opinion that most soldiers are under-educated, or something equally important. You are creating a subcontextual layer to the piece, but only if you do it properly.

You can make jokes, even dark ones, so long as they are structurally sound. You can repeat words if it is for rhetorical effect. You can even have your characters echo the narrator. All these things are possible, but you must know what rules you are ignoring, and do so with care, because a native speaker of English will always know when they are being cheated.

You must, not just understand the parts of speech, but “grok” them deeply. I can’t tell you how many pieces I have edited that change tenses mid-phrase, even sometimes to the point where it is nearly impossible to tell if this is happening now, happened a while back, or might happen.  I especially see it in self-pubbed projects put up on Kindle, for sale! Which is appalling.

Why do I need to invest in an editor?

I’ve been asked: “You’re an editor, so do you still hire someone to edit?” Yes. Yes I damn well do. Why? Many many reasons, the least of which being that no one can ever see all the minor errors they make, because their brain knows what to expect and glosses over the text in the speed of reading. Now, I do a ton of self-editing, but the project never goes to an agent, publisher, or consumer, without at least three layers of editing for which I am responsible. I do my level best, reading the book through 2 full times before I give it to my editor. She edits it. I then incorporate her edits. Then the book is funneled to three beta readers. They read the book and give me their notes, these are then incorporated. One more read-through by me, and then, and ONLY then, does it go up the chain.

Editing can be pricey, or it can be cheap. It really all depends upon what type of editing you want and the person who edits it. But it is an investment in your project. If you really love this thing as much as you claim, if you really want someone to take you seriously, you must jump through the hurdles.

Presenting a piece for sale that is full of grammar, spelling, punctuation errors, contains repetitious wording, inconsistent facts, misspelled names, etc. shows a TREMENDOUS lack of concern, both for the reader and for the value of your project.

Would you go on a job interview with your hair uncombed, your shirt stained, your face covered in paint? No. Of course not! Because not only would they not take you seriously, they would see it as a mark against your work ethic.

I read a lot of true crime/ crime history, and when I come across a text that is self-pub, I don’t automatically dismiss it, because the fact is that a lot of people research or take an interest in this topic and may have interesting points of view. But when I read one (like I did the other day) that has 9 errors in the first two pages…I’m miffed. Not just because I paid for it, but because they didn’t care enough about what they were producing to bother to make sure the sentence had, not just the RIGHT words, but ALL the words it was supposed to have.

Grammar is crucial. It is the bedrock of an English text. You have no excuse. Go and find yourself an editor, even if you are an editor, just to be sure that you haven’t done something stupid, or glossed over something critical, or that the way you toy with the rules is easily understood by your audience.

You must do this. Please. As a reader, as a writer, as an author, as an English teacher, take my well-versed advice. However protective you feel about your work, editing CANNOT make it worse, because you have the right to deny the edits. But I guarantee that if you invest in an editor, you will gain something from it. The work will gain. I promise you.

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