On Grammar

On Grammar

I’m a writer, but I don’t really care about grammar. 

I recently mentioned that I wrote stuff for money to someone and they went straight to grammar and how they hated it. As if I’m physically aroused by subject-verb agreement! Yeah. That’s my passion, all right. Sometimes I promote the myth that I get off on sentence diagramming (uh, nobody’s diagrammed a sentence in the U.S. for 30 years) and pronoun case, but it kind of bothers me because I think it makes writing seem like a dreamy, inaccessible activity and this might contribute to why no one pays us very well.

Because grammar’s not the point of writing. At least for me. The insistence that writers be grammaticians is just another way to lock people out of the club. Writing for me is really about telling a story well. And I know plenty of people who can tell good stories but whose written text would probably be full of run-ons and misplaced commas and mix-ups of “its” for “it’s” and bad spelling.

I mean, I do have some things that bug me. Borrow vs. loan. The use of the word “irregardless.” Pronouncing the “t” in “often.” But, you know, who really cares? Katie Couric says “OFF TEN.” It’s a losing battle. And if we’re sitting and having a chat and you fuck up “borrow v. loan” I’m not going to throw my drink in your face. 

Of course, it jars me to talk to people who speak poorly, like “Then I says to him, I says,” or “I don’t got none of them” or whatever. I don’t want those people doing my brain surgery, obviously. But generally, it’s not their speech that makes me know they are dummies. It’s their knuckle tattoos or their Insane Clown Posse t-shirt or how they named their daughter Nevaeh (“It’s ‘heaven’ backwards!”) that clues me in usually.

Mostly, I just want to be entertained and engaged with writing. If you are able to explain something clearly, and keep me interested, then that’s all I ask. I’m not a good copy-editor at all. I like writing because I like stories. I like words. I like talking to people about the minutiae of my life. Dangling modifiers and split infinitives aren’t what get me out of bed in the morning. You can hire someone to fix that crap for you–and you should–but if you don’t have engaging content, who cares? 

People like to praise precision in these times. They assume that just like an engineer has a complex understanding of internal combustion engines, so might a writer keep a vast invisible network of grammatical rules floating around her head at all times, or go around with the Chicago Manual of Style under her arm.  Repeating “chickens lay but people lie” as a mantra. 

But I’m not great with precision and never have been and I don’t think it matters, because language is not entirely mechanical and precise. Douchebags and geniuses both get to operate it and even if there are rules born out of this mashed-up use, they are not Newtonian physics. Getting uppity about the difference between “nausea” and “nauseated” just makes you sound like a snob – it’s gonna change in 20 years anyway and who wants to be mayor of that tiny town?


Now I gotta go do some actual work.

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