It’s Not Grammar; It’s Better

English teachers don’t teach grammar. They teach something far more important.

Technically, a grammar is a set of rules that separates sentences into two groups: those that are part of a language and those that aren’t. For example, English grammar would tell you that, “Them guys ain’t real hardcore,” is an English sentence and, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,” is not. It doesn’t matter that the first sentence is a high school English teacher’s nightmare. It would be understood by anyone who has even a modest command of the English language. That makes it an English sentence.

Though a legion of brilliant linguists have devoted their lives to trying to develop a grammar for the English language, they haven’t succeeded yet. That’s right. Nobody on Earth can write down a full grammar for English. Or any other natural human language.

They have close approximations to a grammar for English, but even the best still fails to include some valid English sentences and fails to exclude some nonsense strings of words.

So if it wasn’t grammar that your English teachers were trying to teachwhat was it?

It was rules of style. Rules that you can use to make your writing (and speaking) sound the way you want it to sound. In the real world, that’s far more important than an esoteric formal grammar.

Why?

At the most basic level, it lets you communicate. A sentence that is written badly enough can be incomprehensible. Word’s grammar checker has no problem with: “Grammatical meaning does not know the log will not be able to understand,” but I’m sure that you do have a problem with that mess.

More subtly, violating good style can make your sentence ambiguous. Consider: “The pirate ship rushed at the floundering merchant vessel, firing one broadside after another.” Consulting your knowledge about pirates, you would assume that it was them that were firing their cannons. But if you imagine that the pirates were approaching the merchant ship from the side and if you know something about naval battles, you would assume that the merchants were firing the broadsides. The dangling participle is bad style because the sentence could be read either way. It fails to communicate.

Second, good style makes your writing easier to read. “He was running to far for his age.” When “to” was used by mistake instead of “too”, the reader is led down the wrong path, expecting a distant place to follow “far” (e.g., “running to far horizons“). The reader will figure out what is being said, but only after re-reading the sentence.

In a world filled with writers, writing is a competitive sport. If poor style makes your essay, story, or memoir difficult to read, people will put it aside and move on to something else.

Third, good style gives you a distinctive voice. After you have mastered the basics and can communicate clearly and easily, you can write variations that make you sound more or less educated, witty, or sincere. “She was as fresh as a ripe peach, hanging heavy on the branch,” is a different voice than, “She was as innocent as any lamb of the good Lord above.” Both convey the same underlying sentiment – that the girl is young and inexperienced – and both are written in a good style; but each will create a different expectation in the reader.

Consider again that English teacher’s nightmare sentence: “Them guys ain’t real hardcore.” Put that in your scholarly exposition and you’ll merit the F that you’ll get. But put it in dialog, voiced by the right person, and your teacher will praise you for your brilliant character development.

The flexibility of a language like English is what makes it so hard for linguists to discover a formal grammar but it’s also what enables you to write such powerful prose. Once you master its rules of style.

Yours, Ashley

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About Ashley Zacharias

I'm a post-modern woman who lives a vanilla life and dreams about kinky adventure. I write BDSM pornography but have no interest in acting out my fantasies in real life. Find my work on SmashWords.com and Amazon.com
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2 Responses to It’s Not Grammar; It’s Better

  1. Bob Johnson says:

    Off the subject of English. have you seen this?
    A “Fan Letter” to Consevative Politicans by John Scalzi
    PS when was the last time you wrote one of your outrageous stories?
    Bob

  2. Great point in Scalzi’s letter.
    PS National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is almost here, so I’ll be writing a novel. Not so outrageous as my short stories and novellas so we’ll see if it goes out under the Zacharias brand.

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