In the Name of Grammar
Do you consider yourself a good writer?
Want to test the veracity of that idea? Okay, here’s a paragraph of prose:
In the life of Mr Gerald Short, tragedy was a common occurrence, or so the people sharing his day insisted. Their invocation of the tragic started on the early morning train into the city. The first lament arrived with the man who got on at Lakeside station. He was a natty dresser, who always carried an umbrella, even at the height of summer. His shoes were polished to a high shine and his suits were pressed into sharp creases. Under his arm was a newspaper that, having taken his usual spot two rows down from Gerald, he opened with a fanfare of rustling. The black headlines cried calamity. A toddler drowned; a family incinerated; a movie star found dead in a bathtub. Tragedy piled upon tragedy, the newspaper proclaimed. Gerald turned his gaze away, seeking solace in the slow awakening of the suburbs beyond the window, but the reprieve last only until Roseville station; here the queens of high drama boarded. Rife with incessant chatter, they invariably occupied the seat behind Gerald and proceeded to conquer his morning with tales of woe: this terrible death, that awful breakdown (of marriage, of health, of wealth), the travesty of a lottery win missed by two numbers. Tragic, they assured each other, but Gerald wasn’t sure he agreed.
Right, there it is; now let’s get to work.
Can you identify the subject, verb, direct object and indirect object in the sentences above? Can you find the subject complements, and modifiers? Can you identify the adjectives and adverbs, the nouns, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions, the transitive and intransitive verbs? What about the main clauses, the subordinate clauses, or the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses? And how about the phrases? Can you identify which of the sentences are simple, or compound, or complex, or compound-complex? Can you identify a triadic, cumulative, parallel, balanced or run-on sentence? Or what about the periodic, convoluted, centred or loose sentences — without resorting to Google? And what about the punctuation? Are the full stops, commas, semicolons, colons and brackets in the correct place? And why?
If you’re scratching your head and wondering what foreign language I’m speaking, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about these things either, although I have a vague recollection of an English teacher, a metre ruler, a blackboard full of conjugated verbs— and the horror I felt at all three.
The paragraph above lists a range of tools used in the construction of writing, and I ask you about them because, when I think about my own practice and of my experiences with emerging writers, it seems that not many of us consciously consider how we make writing work. In most instances, we write organically, feeling out the sentences, testing them intuitively for their functionality and – if we’re mildly switched on to our practice – for their beauty. But, we don’t really understand, or consider, the nuts and bolts of how those sentences are constructed. Or, and maybe this is worse, we don’t care to know.
And that raises the question: do we need to know the nuts and bolts?
Well, that depends on how you define good prose (or writing). What does this phrase mean to you? Drawing on the ideas of a group of students I’ve been working with, good prose looks something like this:
Good prose will appear effortless, even though it is purposeful, concise and clear. The language will be unambiguous and simple, yet beautiful and rhythmic; it will be eloquent, subtle and nuanced. There will be a logic and fluidity to the ideas, and in the words that convey them. The prose will surprise and tease a reader; it will evoke a response and offer a new perspective. Above all, good prose will never make a reader struggle for understanding; rather, it will allow a reader to slip beneath the words and discover the writer’s intention.
Or we can turn to the experts, such as William Shrunk Jr (from Shrunk and White fame):
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The students and Mr Strunk appear to concur that good prose is concise, crafted and purposeful; an opinion I whole-heartedly share. And perhaps one way of achieving such writing is by knowing and understanding the nuts and bolts of how grammar and punctuation work. To that end, here’s an article by Constance Hale that has a few useful tricks for writing ‘wickedly’ good prose.
Yet for some people, writers and readers alike, knowing what makes writing tick isn’t important; a fact borne out by the phenomenal commercial success of series such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, which are roundly acknowledge as being poorly written. I don’t want to discuss what constitutes bad writing; there is, however, a lively (albeit subjective) thread on Reddit about this topic, if you’re interested.
Suffice to say two things:
Firstly, in my opinion, before a writer breaks the rules of grammar, they should know what those rules are; otherwise, they are writing without intention and inflicting unnecessary hardship on the reader. Secondly, knowing what we are doing when we write is far better than following our intuition because, then, we become masters and guardians of language, and of story. The alternative is to churn out clichéd, bland, repetitive, and inelegant writing that history (with any luck) will soon forget:
‘I scowl at him as he turns and leaves. His parting words rub salt into my wounds because, despite my heroic attempts during our workout today, my personal trainer has kicked my ass. Bastille is the only one who can beat me, and now he wants another pound of flesh on the golf course. I detest golf, but so much business is done on the fairways, I have to endure his lessons there, too…and though I hate to admit it, playing against Bastille does improve my game.’
Grey, E. L. James (2015)
Of course, understanding grammar and punctuation are not the only keys to writing good prose – originality, style, technique, and execution matter too. However, just as a surgeon must know his instruments and how they function in order to save a patient’s life, so too must the writer know how to use the basic tools of their craft. The Net is bulging with websites that can assist with understanding grammar usage. Two excellent ones are: Grammar Bytes, and Grammar Girl. Go forth and educate yourself for the sake of your writing and your future fans, who are waiting to fall in love with your glorious, beautifully constructed prose.
Grammar nerds rule!