I have many reasons to be thankful for my writing partner, Emily. I’ve written about some of them before, and one day I’ll compose a post about our evolving partnership. Or I’ll simply provide a link to the post she writes. We make a good team, or as Emily told me last week, we’re part of the same Ka-Tet whose mission is to write great books. Along with some complementary differences, we share a number of attributes, including a wonderfully nerdish devotion to grammar and her sister, punctuation. During our bi-monthly writing lunches (and on many other occasions), we conduct passionate discussions about the importance of clear punctuation or sentence structure variation. I find these conversations exhilarating, though I imagine some people might not share our enthusiasm.
I understand why the topic could seem less than thrilling. For so many, the word grammar evokes memories of stern English teachers lecturing about the dangers of split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling modifiers. These infractions of grammar rules sound truly horrible—splitting, splicing, and dangling, oh my! It’s no wonder people cringe at the thought.
But our nerdy devotion allows Emily and me a different perspective on grammar and punctuation from that of the terrified high school student. We see those rules as tools for making meaning, both for the writer and the reader. A thorough grounding in grammar gives writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices for communicating their ideas and for telling their stories. And a keen understanding of grammar helps readers interpret what they read. Grammatical mistakes, however, cloud meaning, putting a barrier between the writer and the reader. For example, a misplaced comma can radically alter the sense of a sentence: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” One tiny mark changes that statement from an enthusiastic invitation to a cannibalistic exhortation. That is some awesome power on display.
Other tiny marks bear the same power. Consider a sentence such as, “I like Tuesday’s.” That apostrophe combined with an s signals ownership, so as a reader I’m left wondering what it is belonging to Tuesday you like. Take out the apostrophe and you get “I like Tuesdays.” Aha. So do I. I like Tuesdays, too. My friend Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has a fabulous post on her blog about just this issue.
Grammatical errors have the same result—confusion. Take the ominously named dangling modifier in this example:
Walking to the back of the room, heads slowly turn to watch me as they perform the traditional inspection of each person who enters.
In this case, “walking to the back of the room” modifies—clarifies, defines, describes—something in the full sentence that follows the comma. As you can see, there is an (amusing) error, and the italicized phrase modifies “heads.” But that doesn’t make any sense. The mistake takes the reader out of the narrative, forcing her to try to figure out what is going on. Sure, I can guess what the writer means, but, as I used to tell my writing students, what if I get it wrong?
The writer well versed in grammar, however, can choose to break rules to create specific effects. Take the passive voice; anyone who works in Word knows that it prefers active voice, alerting us to our “mistakes” in green. It has a point. The passive voice doesn’t provide a lot of information—we can’t identify the subject of a sentence structure in passive voice. There is no actor, in other words, as this famous example demonstrates: “Mistakes were made.” Sure, but by whom, Mr. President? Yet the passive voice can be valuable if, for instance, you’d like to use sentence structure to highlight a people’s plight: Native Americans were forced from their land and made to walk across the country. Here, using passive voice underlines the powerlessness of the Native Americans—they did not choose to leave their lands. Of course, if you wanted to spotlight the perpetrators, you would make them the subject of the sentence: The US Government forced Native Americans from their land and drove them across the country.
Like the passive voice, the well-placed sentence fragment can do a lot of work for a writer: Derek couldn’t sleep. His mind kept turning and turning. All damn night. Those three syllables, so abrupt and technically ungrammatical, emphasize Derek’s insomnia. They also create a rhythm for the passage, a short little burst of words next to a longer clause. (Isn’t this freakin’ cool?)
My final example for this post: the run-on sentence, while generally something worth avoiding, has its uses:
“Mom told me to go outside and play but I said it was too cold then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says oh Jeffrey and then told me to put on a coat so I did and I found the tree stump and came here—” He drew a breath.
I took this passage from a flash fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Jeffrey is only six, and I wanted to communicate his enthusiasm—the kind associated with children telling stories as though they have to get all their words out on one breath. I left out punctuation to achieve that affect. Correct punctuation would actually have failed me:
Mom told me to go outside and play, but I said it was too cold. Then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says, “Oh Jeffrey” and told me to put on a coat. So I did, and I found the tree stump and came here.
There are too many pauses breaking up the stream of Jeffrey’s breathless recitation of events. It’s an adult’s voice, not a child’s.
I’ll be doing more of these posts in the weeks to come because I’m a grammar nerd and want to share my love with other writers. In the meanwhile, here are some of my favorite sources for answering grammar and punctuation questions:
The Elements of Style (William Strunk)
Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb)