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The Relevance of Good Grammar

How many different skills have you learned in your lifetime?

I’ll bet, if you count them all up, you’ll find you have hundreds, maybe even thousands of life-skills.  Many of these skills are acquired by a sort of unconscious osmosis, through societal culture, family habits and traditions or sheer trial and error.  Others are the ones you’ll have consciously developed, the better to get a job or a date, be more attractive to the opposite sex, speak more clearly or learn another language, master a hobby or career, even overcome a disability or illness.  

From the time we’re conceived, we grow and change.  From the time we’re born, we learn.  We learn to see and recognize the people around us.  We learn to demand food when we’re hungry.  We learn to walk, talk and tie our shoes and when we go to school, most of us learn to read and write.

Grammar by rote

school, child, grammar, distracted

In the previous century, learning to read and write was a matter of repetition and memorization.  We learned the rules of grammar by rote, even though most of them made no sense to us.  Who cared what a participle was or whether it dangled, when the day was warm and sunny and there were new games to play outside with the other kids?  Who cared that the proper way to indicate future action meant we had to say, “I shall”, not “I will”?  Everybody said, “I will”, so we did, too.

In the previous century, learning to read and write was a matter of repetition and memorization.  We learned the rules of grammar by rote, even though most of them made no sense to us.  Who cared what a participle was or whether it dangled, when the day was warm and sunny and there were new games to play outside with the other kids?  Who cared that the proper way to indicate future action meant we had to say, “I shall”, not “I will”?  Everybody said, “I will”, so we did, too.

As we grew older, some of us went on to higher education, even learning to write formally for essays, term papers or theses.  This brought our early education into focus.  It gave us a context for all those stupid rules we had to learn in elementary school.

Many of us read books for pleasure or further learning.  Occasionally, we’d catch out an author in a grammatical mistake, feeling smug that we still remembered those classes from long ago, but in general, we didn’t think too much about the actual rules — not consciously — and we certainly didn’t go back and study them.

vs. grammar by choice

But now, we’re at an age when our kids and grandkids are saying they’d like to know more about our lives.  We’re being asked to go back to school and master a new skill; figuring out how to write our memoirs. 

Perhaps as adults, we’ve done some writing for pleasure, kept a diary or series of journals, maybe even had some of our work published, but unless we’ve been serious about our writing, we haven’t given the grammatical rules of English the slightest thought over the years.  We just used them.  They were part of us, acquired by osmosis and memory decades ago.

But something’s missing…

So, yes, we could simply go ahead and start writing stuff down as it occurs to us, one incident after another in a sequential laundry list of events.  It would be a strict record of all the things that happened to us, a document full of facts, with little or no reference to the emotional fallout of the events described, or any kind of cohesive story.  For that, though, we’d need the skills of a writer, one who understands the skill of storytelling; one who knows and uses the rules of grammar, even when and how to bend them.

We’ve finally discovered the context that makes relevant all those rules we learned, fifty, sixty, seventy years ago.  We recall with gratitude the endless hours spent in stuffy classrooms learning how to express our thoughts on paper.  Because of those hours, we unconsciously know how to use language to express our deepest thoughts and feelings.  

Don’t we?

Oh sure, on one level, we do, more or less.  We may be a tad lazy in our adherence to correct speech, but we do use these grammatical guidelines every day, every time we speak to one another in person or on the phone.  However, it’s when we try to write it down that we begin to stumble.  We remember nouns and verbs, but what about verb tenses?  What is a participle anyway and what makes it dangle?

It comes down to clarity.  If we want to learn how to write clearly, we must understand the rules of grammar.  They allow us to place the sequence of events correctly in time, indicate which character is speaking and build a complex and comprehensive story from the ground up, all without the use of body language, facial expressions or hand gestures.  (Ever watch someone on the phone waving their hands about, trying to get across a point the recipient can’t even see?)

Why do we need good grammar?

True, our family will be grateful for any life story we can leave for them, but wouldn’t it be great if the writing were so compelling that not only could they know what we did, but they could also fully understand how we felt, what we thought and how our lives and choices ultimately impacted theirs? Wouldn’t it be a priceless gift for our descendants if they could feel that they really know us?

A blast from the past

Recently, I rediscovered one of my high-school English grammar books.  I’d completely forgotten I even had it.  I looked up dangling participle, as I couldn’t recall exactly what it was and why it was important.

A participle is a word which has the function of both verb and adjective – a verb modifier.  When a participle is not clearly attached to the word it modifies, it’s dangling.

Pretty dry, right?  No wonder we hated it when we learned it all those years ago.  Basically, it’s saying if a modifying word or phrase doesn’t directly relate to the main verb (action word) in a sentence, it’s wrong.  

For example:

“Seeing the tornado in the distance, we battened down the hatches.”  The phrase, “Seeing the tornado” has nothing to do with the hatch-battening.  It’s disconnected from the action verb.  It may have preceded the action, but it isn’t actually related.  The phrase relates to the subject “we”, not the verb “battened”.  We did the seeing.

Yeah, I know, it’s still utterly dessicated, but it actually does start to make sense in the context of writing our life’s story.  If we’re recording the time our family had to take shelter from a violent storm, we want to make it vivid and clear to our readers and help them feel what we felt.  They can’t do that if they constantly have to go back and re-read the text in order to understand what happened and in what sequence.

It’s our job to make things easy for our readers.  To write well, we must know and understand the rules.  Like any other creative discipline, it takes work, dedication and study.  Fortunately, for most of us, the bulk of the study was done years ago. 

Now it’s just a question of refreshing our memory (which admittedly, some days seems to be a tad fleeting), but fortunately, the earliest memories are the last to go.

Happy Writing!

Mapping Your Memoir author, Bev Hanna



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About Beverley Hanna

Trained as an artist in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I was one of the first creatives to be employed in the computer graphics industry in Toronto during the early 1980’s. For several years, I exhibited my animal portraiture in Canada and the U.S. but when my parents needed care, I began writing as a way to stay close. I’ve been writing ever since. I ran a highly successful writer’s circle focusing on the craft and techniques of good writing. Most of my students went on to publish works of their own. Now it's time to take that knowledge online to share with a larger audience.

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Does your memoir have Writer’s Block? Are you having trouble deciding where to start? Don’t know how to retrieve your memories from long ago? Download my free mini-course, “Mapping Your Memoirs – How to Use Mapmaking to Discover Your Past and Plan Your Autobiography”.

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