The Skill List Project: Learning to Love Grammar

This is another blog post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at another fundamental building-block of writing: grammar.

Making Sense

Grammar prevents you from tripping over your own feet. The point of grammar is to make your words make sense. This operates on (at least) two levels:

  • For readers: Grammar mistakes are like potholes—they make sentences bumpy and hard for readers to follow. If a grammar mistake is serious, readers may even misinterpret what you’re saying; they have to guess who’s doing what to whom, and they may guess wrong. Even if readers can figure out what you mean, they’ll likely decide it’s not worth the trouble. Poor grammar is apt to make people think, “This writer isn’t very smart.” That’s seldom the message you want to send.
  • For yourself: Sloppy grammar often goes hand-in-hand with sloppy thought. If, for example, your nouns and verbs don’t agree, you may not be envisioning the scene very well; otherwise, you wouldn’t confuse your words. When you can’t state something grammatically, you probably don’t understand it well enough to convey it to other people.

Of course, fiction-writing is an art and you may occasionally make an artistic decision to use sloppy grammar. For example, dialogue between characters is often “ungrammatical”; few of us speak in well-formed sentences 100% of the time. You may also choose to use “ungrammatical” constructs for effect—sentence fragments, for example, can deliver a snappy punch when used at the right place and time. However, it’s easy to overdo such tricks unless you know what you’re doing. Even when you’re writing in an informal tone of voice, you almost always want your prose to run smoothly and hang together. For the most part, that means good clear grammar.

Infinitives and Gerunds and Participles, Oh My!

Is it necessary to know the technical details: the pluperfect tense, the objective case, the subjunctive voice (or is it a mood)? It’s not absolutely essential—some people may be able to write grammatically without knowing the terminology for the constructions they’re using—but what would we think of carpenters who didn’t know the right names for their tools? How much confidence would we have in a computer programmer who said, “I don’t really know the rules of JavaScript, I just kind of wing it”? And if a gardener never bothered to learn the names of various flowers, wouldn’t we think something was wrong? Wouldn’t we consider these people to be lackadaisical about their jobs?

Grammar can certainly be complicated—I studied Latin for five years, and nothing beats Latin for making you aware of what a mare’s nest grammar can be—but finicky details matter. If you don’t know what the subjunctive is, how can you use it correctly? If you don’t know what the pluperfect is, how can you write a flashback? Besides, writers should want to learn how words go together, even when the concepts are difficult.

There are plenty of good books to help you. As a starting point, there’s the Old Reliable: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. My favorite version is the one with illustrations by Maira Kalman, but any edition will do. Every library has a copy, and it’s a quick read. Strunk & White isn’t perfectly suited to writing fiction—it’s aimed more toward essays and nonfiction pieces—but it’s still worth reading (and rereading) for its sheer common sense and levelheadedness.

The Elements of Style is a good start, but it doesn’t cover grammar in depth. For that, my favorite textbook is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a compendium of her books The Transitive Vampire (on grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (on punctuation). Not only does Ms. Gordon cover all the bases, her examples always make me laugh, in a Bulwer-Lytton Contest sort of way. (Sample sentence demonstrating the pluperfect: “She had never pondered anything besides her fingernails before she met the troll.”)

As usual, however, the only good reference book is one that you’ll actually use. Go to the grammar section of the library, see what books are available, and find one that appeals to you. Read it carefully, so you’ll never have to worry about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and all those other slip-ups that open up potholes in your sentences.

Other Suggestions?

Now once more, I turn the podium over to you. How important do you think grammar is, and how can you go about improving it? (Does anyone diagram sentences anymore?) In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: punctuation and other persnickety perils.