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?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.
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.
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.