Forget About Grammar (Until …)

Grammar is the most elementary part of Logic. It is the beginning of the analysis of the thinking process. The principles and rules of grammar are the means by which the forms of language are made to correspond with the universal forms of thought. The distinctions between the various parts of speech, between the cases of nouns, the modes and tenses of verbs, the functions of participles, are distinctions in thought, not merely in words. The structure of every sentence is a lesson in Logic.

~~John Stuart Mill (Rectorial Address at St. Andrews, 1867, quoted from Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar, London, 1924, p. 47)

John Stuart Mill’s words have been quoted often, by many worthy grammarians defending their position that grammar is the rightful first stop on the road to good writing. Unfortunately, they forgot to look at the two prepositional phrases following the word “beginning”—of the analysis of the thinking process.

Grammar—meaning (in this case) diction and syntax—is hard-wired into our brains at an incredibly young age. Our neural pathways have been coded by repeated firing to traverse some familiar ground, whether right or wrong.

As we examine our thought process and get clear on what we want to say, we can force our neurons to fire in different directions, to get off the beaten path as it were. And that’s where our old, bad grammar patterns can finally be broken.

But that can only happen if we stop focusing on grammar and start focusing on logic. THINK through your document, through the ideas you’re trying to articulate, and get clear on what you’re trying to stay. Only then will the parts of speech, … the cases of nouns, the modes and tenses of verbs, the functions of participles start to fall into place, of their own accord.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study grammar. It just means that when we’re writing a document, we shouldn’t worry about it. Instead, we should worry about what we’re trying to say, and let the grammar work for us.

But if we’re going to progress in our chosen profession, there does come a time when we have to bite the bullet and become experts at our craft. And like anything else worth knowing, grammar is best studied in small chunks throughout our lifetime and then intensely when we’re knee-deep in the practice.

If you’re serious about becoming an accomplished writer (creative or corporate) make it a habit to visit websites and blogs that discuss grammar topics and just listen to the discussions. You should also consider picking up a usage manual to thumb through over the occasional coffee break, just maybe once a week or so.

Finally, if you’re on Twitter, you’ll want to follow these folks for helpful reminders on commonly confused words, parts of speech, and usage debates:

@DailyEngHelp

@GrammarROCKS

@Grammarly

@Word_Masters

@EditorMark

As for the serious hard work, you know it’s time to worry about grammar when you’re ready to send your document up the chain, whether that be to your manager or your editor. Think of this moment like shower-time on the morning of a big job interview. Every detail counts, from spacing to margins to spelling to commas.

Question everything, especially the spellings of proper names and commonly confused words. Keep a cheat sheet next to your desk of problem areas that you know, and update it every two weeks or so with tips you’ve learned from blogs, Twitter, or reference works. And until you know your comma rules inside and out, justify every single one that’s there and have a ready explanation for every one that’s not.

When you’re done, print the document, and grab a cup of coffee. Stretch your legs, reach your arms high up into the air so that your back and your chest get the chance to swell out with the deep breath you’re about to take. Close your eyes and rub them, and then massage your forehead and your temples. Look out of your office window and enjoy the view.

Then proofread that sucker one final time, out loud. Because you’ll be surprised how often errors creep into the document during that final careful revision. You’ll almost always find a missed word or a subject-verb agreement that would just be embarrassing, especially after all the hard work you just put into your grammar and mechanics edit.

And that’s it. Send your document along, confident that you’ve done everything in your power to commune responsibly and respectfully with your reader. And take a minute to reflect on what you learned during the process. Did you master a new comma rule? Did you discover a new definition for an old word, or rediscover an old friend while thumbing through the dictionary?

Honor those moments of triumph in a writer’s journal that you can use when it comes time for your next performance evaluation or when you’re just in need of some inspiration. I keep this in a blue leather-bound journal that I call my blue book, because I check in when I’m feeling blue. It never fails to pick me up when I can see what I’ve accomplished. I hope it will do the same for you.

Comments

  1. Hi Dr. Baker,

    Congrats on your blog and your writer’s resource site as well. There’s certainly a need for the information. I hope you get some great following and help people to improve their writing skills. Good luck! If you would like to trade guest posts, please get in touch. That would be fun. -Jayna

  2. Dr. Baker I love how the information you share in your blog is IMMEDIATELY APPLICABLE by anyone who reads it. I have bad habit of not taking the time to “commune responsibly and respectfully” with my readers. I will definitely attempt to put your wisdom into action. Thanks for this inspirational post.

    “Ignorant people think it is the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it is the sickening grammar that they use.” ~Mark Twain

    • Jermaine–
      What a fabulous quote by Mark Twain – I love it and totally intend to steal it!
      Thank you so much for the kind words. It certainly is my goal to provide readers with information they can put to immediate, good use, and I’m glad to hear that I’m hitting the mark. Have a wonderful week, and keep in touch–Michelle

  3. Bill Harper says:

    I like to think I have a pretty good grasp of English grammar. But don’t ask me to name the parts of a sentence or anything like that because I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve pretty much learned from years or seeing it done right in books, newspapers, etc.

    One of my favourite grammar-related quotes comes from the late Gary Provost:

    “Never choose good grammar over good writing. There is nothing virtuous about good grammar that does no work. Your goal is good writing. Good grammar is only one of the tools you use to achieve it.”

    • Bill–I personally believe that “applied grammar” is the only grammar instruction that really sticks. “Theoretical grammar” like you mentioned–being able to name the parts of a sentence, etc.,–is useful as a means to an end. And the quote that you referenced (which I am totally going to steal) identifies that end–good writing. Thanks for sharing, and best wishes–Michelle

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