Grammar For Dummies (Like All of Us)

Grammar. Grammar grammar grammar. What can anyone say about grammar that hasn’t been said before? How about, “Grammar killed my pet chinchilla.” According to Google, that one’s fresh. Or, “I’m going to WalMart to pick up some grammar.” Nobody’s ever said that before. Here’s another: “Off screen, Kelsey Grammer has always been a model citizen.”

I’d say that’s enough foolishness, but perhaps foolishness is the only way to keep grammar interesting. I say grammar, you roll your eyes. You say grammar, I roll my eyes. Most of us despise the subject. And are suspicious of those who don’t. We all know a grammar freak, don’t we? And we all think that grammar freak should be sent to a remote island to frolic (and discuss prepositions) with the other grammar freaks, and let them birth little grammar babies who are born knowing the difference between effect and affect and are predisposed to think less of me for beginning two sentences in this paragraph with “And.”

But here’s something worth noting: out of the thousands and thousands of pieces of writing I’ve rejected in my years as an editor, as many as half of those rejections were due solely to poor grammar. And a good half of those were due to poor grammar in the first paragraph, or in the cover/query letter.

Something else worth noting: no editor has ever accepted a piece of writing solely because of good grammar. Ever. As a writer, you never get recognition for good grammar; only bad. Seems unfair, right?

But editors, agents, publishers, and readers, they just assume that a writer should know how to use proper grammar. It’s kind of like breathing. When’s the last time you said to someone, “Hey, you’re pretty good at breathing. You’re a dynamite breather.” No, the only people who ever get attention for their breathing are those who are suddenly not so good at it.

Still, even the best writers have their grammar hangups. I don’t want to turn this into a screed about the quality of our education system (actually, I kinda do; but I won’t), but I, for one, have had to learn most of this stuff on my own. Nobody ever told me when to use an em dash and when to use a semicolon. I only vaguely know the difference between “bring” and “take.” Subject-verb agreement? I don’t really even know what the subject of this sentence is. If you ask me to diagram it, I’ll give you the Homer Simpson stare.

So what’s a writer to do? Just keep trying. Force yourself to read books like On Writing Well and The Elements of Style. Join us at WriteByNight on Thursday, June 21 for our seminar “Grammar For Creative Writers: It Doesn’t Have to Suck.” (I buried the lead. Or did I bury the lede?) Online resources like Purdue University’s OWL can prove valuable. (And invaluable. WTF?)

And practice. Because practice makes perfect. A cliché which doesn’t make sense grammatically, because perfect is an adjective, not a noun. (Or do I mean adverb?) The only time you use perfect as a noun is when you’re referring to the perfect tense, or to a verb in the perfect tense. That’s right [insert em dash, semicolon, maybe colon] use perfect as a noun when referring to a verb.

Okay, since my head just exploded a little, I should sign off.

Keep doing a good job breathing, folks. I’m going to go lay or lie down.

Grammar for Creative Writers: It doesn’t have to suck
Thursday, June 21, 6-8:30 p.m. at WriteByNight Headquarters (1305 E. 6th Street, Suite 4), $49
Learn more or register

David Duhr is co-founder of WriteByNight, and Fiction Editor & book critic at the Texas Observer. He contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and others. Follow him on Twitter at @Write_By_Night


PWA’s May/June 2012 guest blog guest editor is Sandra Kleinsasser.