We’re ready to examine Rule #2 of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing: Good grammar. Notice that I said good. You’ll recall that the ideal communication goal for spelling may be perfection, but that we settle for excellence, because of Murphy’s law. However, good grammar is sufficient to achieve the goal of our Art, which is communication.
Writers who have difficulty communicating on real or virtual paper would be well-advised to consult some specialists. They include dictionaries (use an old one and a newer one), and grammar books. These are two grammars from my reference library.
The grammars you use don’t have to be the most current editions. Anything that was published before or during your lifetime will work; but in order to learn what has stood the test of time, and will help you communicate best with the largest number of readers, consult only general grammars that were published at least 20 years ago, and cross-reference with your reasonably new dictionary, to verify current usage.
Feedback from trusted, capable and experienced alpha and beta readers can also help here; however, be careful with generic ethnic readers. There may be significant regional differences in usage that can color their perceptions (e.g., not just any Irishman will do).
Note my use of the term, “consult.” Learn or review the rules that these books advocate, but the acid test is to choose the form of usage that suits your voice, category of writing (fiction or non-fiction), topic or genre, setting and character development.
For example, most writing gurus and gatekeepers swear by Strunk.* I can live with much of what he and his student, E. B. White, had to say – when I’m writing academic papers. It’s important to know that Strunk’s book was a rubric he wrote for students in his classes to follow: it details his own pet peeves and preferences about parts of speech and their usage. Making up rules is the prerogative of teachers, and obeying them is the responsibility of students: You must learn how to be a successful follower before you can assume the role of an effective leader.
Unfortunately, Strunk has been canonized by the gurus and gatekeepers, and his dicta and dogma are enthusiastically enforced – and mainly misapplied – by the Writing Art’s fifth column known as the Grammar Police. It’s kind of like the Framingham Heart Study: If you’re aged 30-62, it may well be advisable to adopt recommendations based on the study’s findings, but if you’re a pregnant woman, an infant, child or teenager, or an elderly person, your needs are very different to those of the study’s cohort.
Here’s an interesting take on why the diet and exercise regimen prescribed by Strunk & White may be bad for your writing health:
Strunk (with or without his partner in crime) can be a very helpful reference for non-fiction writers to consult, in order to achieve the appearance of correctness that’s so important to academia. If you’re writing for that audience, by all means, adhere to what Strunk himself called, “the little book.” It will fill that limited bill.
But if your Art is Fiction, your writing voice is your best judge. If you’re not sure what your writing voice sounds like, or how to use it to your best advantage, it these two books by Les Edgerton may help.
So, if you’re past the stage of learning – and you’re not writing for the inhabitants of Planet Strunk – but you find that your writing voice has become unnaturally squeaky, gravelly, or you’ve developed literary laryngitis, then you need to break the prescriptive and proscriptive bonds of the Grammar Police. Just use grammar that communicates.
One of the best ways to detect grammar problems is to enroll others of your senses in your proofreading. Read your writing aloud, and have it read aloud to you. If you don’t have a willing and able reader, send your writing through the Balabolka text-to-speech converter. Reading aloud usually clears up things.
Occasionally, we all need to review the basics, especially when what we’ve written doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes, the best method to refresh your thinking is to diagram a few sentences. Wait! I heard you draw that deep breath! Before you start screaming, try this short, entertaining book by Kitty Burns Florey. It may change your mind, and give you a good tool to strengthen your writing.
The Author as an Artist communicates by painting pictures with words. Spelling and grammar make up the paint we use in our Art. The next time we revisit the Rules, we’ll talk about how the paint is applied.
* Before reading Strunk, first read the last 5 paragraphs of E. B. White’s Chapter V in the revised edition (pp. 69-71 in the Macmillan 1959/1962 paperback, twenty-fourth printing, 1971).