Monday, February 28, 2011

What's Grammar Good For?

I have always felt that a writer should know all the rules of grammar, not in order to slavishly follow them, but in order to recognize what purpose they serve and when it is effective to break them. Today I read a humorous article by Daniel Silliman entitled "The other thing grammar is good for" that reinforced my opinion ever so eloquently. 

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly. It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.
As soon as I read the simile in that last sentence, I knew that Silliman's essay was going to be a good one. He goes on to describe a childhood effort at story writing that came back with the teacher's blood red markings all over it, and the angry word "GRAMMAR" scrawled across the top. The next part of the essay is too delicious to paraphrase:

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary.... Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.
Silliman uses this anecdote to explain why many people have negative perceptions of grammar. It's just a bunch of rules that they don't understand and that teachers mark them down for breaking. To Silliman, however, the "rules" of grammar are more like Newton's "Laws." They describe the way things generally work. "[G]rammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively." To explain the importance of learning grammar, Silliman uses the analogy of auto mechanics: the best way to find out how the engine works is to take it apart.

The ability to analyze how sentences fit together gives a writer the ability to control those sentences. That is a claim commonly made when defending the study of grammar. Interestingly, Silliman goes a step beyond this and claims that knowledge of grammar gives readers a better ability to understand what they are reading. He looks at various writings, both prose and poetry and shows how the reader can better connect with the author's intention by analyzing the sentence structures involved.

Silliman sums up his essay with these two insightful paragraphs:

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing.... We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.


  1. Possibly it has to do with having teachers who are so ill-educated that they tell students that there is a (non-existent) rule against beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

  2. Very interesting post. I loved the similes.

  3. Jeanne, that could be it. Silliman's view of the "rules", however, is that they are merely "descriptions" of the way language usually works, (perhaps even the way it usually works best). I don't know if you've ever read junior high papers where every sentence begins with "and" (I've graded many such), but if so, you would pray for grammar books to have a "rule" against beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

    I think grammar rules are kind of like the rules we teach our kids. " 'Stupid!' is a bad word. You're not allowed to say it." And it's probably a good thing for little munchkins not to run around calling things stupid. But when they get older, they learn that some things really are stupid. So now, they can break the rule and use the word because they have the maturity to wield it at only appropriate moments.

    Daniel, I agree! The similes are a lot of fun! "...which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s." :-)

  4. Thanks for this post. Grammar is still a battleground sometimes... :-P :-)


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