How important is Grammar?
There's a conversation going on on Crimespace about pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying "I could care less" when they mean "I couldn't care less." But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I'll back off of that... simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That's what I work on.

If a story starts:

"Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road."

I am not going to sit there and help fix the "me and you" and the correct "your" first. I'm going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head's spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write "Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda."

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it's easy to fix. You can--when you edit someone's piece--say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it's easier than saying, but there's a plot hole here on page 202 and I don't know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I'm always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I'm always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

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I happen to agree with your overall philosophy here. And it's great to see a teacher with this idea. Teachers sometimes are so busy teaching the lesson plan, they forget kids have working brains in their heads. My niece wrote a poem and I asked her open ended questions about how she came up with her ideas--mainly just out of curiosity. She got tense and thought I was correcting her, like I'm some sort of authority figure. After I finally got her to relax, she talked to me about her thought process and our discussion turned into more of an exhange of ideas. Have we lost that in our schools? Where is the nurturing of independent thought--where there is no RIGHT answer, just discussion? But that's another thread.

I judge writing contests from time to time and I'm a pretty forgiving judge because I am after content and structure, the big picture stuff. Storytelling is not something I think can be taught. It's more instinctual. So when you find it in an unpubbed author, it should be nurtured at all cost.

So you're right when you say people will focus on line edits and grammar because it's easy to spot and makes them look like they're doing something for you. But for me, I'd rather someone focus on big pic stuff, char motivation, scene selection, POV choices, and plot. Few are good at that.

I'd bet money some people would correct the grammar of the Bible, yet no matter if you're a religious person or not, you can't deny the influential nature of the book. I wonder who has the royalties?

(BTW---I hear God now has a blog on MySpace...and he's pissed.)
FOR THE RECORD: This is in no way an attempt to trash teachers. I am a teacher and I believe in teachers. All teachers want to make students smarter and more well rounded young men and woman.

However, I think there is an old fashioned thinking vs. a new type of thinking among all citizens of the United States on whether or not grammar should be the key to good writing.
Exactly. And I hope I didn't imply any disrespect for teachers either. For me, grammar is a facet of writing but it's not THE foundation for it. The thought process behind any creative work is key and that is a nurtured skill that also doesn't come along everyday.

My sister was a special ed gal for decades. To this day, I don't know how she did that for so long, but she is a real hero in my book. Teaching is a real specialty that is SO undervalued. I can think back to the influential teachers in my life and the ones that stand out the most were the ones who asked open ended questions and genuinely wondered what I thought. Guess that's why those few stood out in my mind. They don't come along everyday either.

But by the sounds of your thoughts here, you are someone who will no doubt be talked about by some kid years down the road. I remember, Mr White. He taught me how to love writing.
Oh Dave, Dave, Dave.

Not "all" teachers want to make students smarter (you can't, anyway. You can educate someone, but you can't raise their level of native intelligence. That is an innate trait.). Not "all" teachers care whether their students grow up to be well-rounded young men and women. Just like not "all" cops are heroic, and not "all" firefighters look good on calendars.

As an English teacher, you of all people (no pun intended) ought to be painfully aware of of the futility of speaking in generalities. If communication is in fact the quest for "meaning," then the more specific, the more precise your language, your presentation, the less ambiguity attached to it, the better.


I too teach eighth grade. I've taught both English and History at every level from sixth grade to community college, so my experience here is pretty broad.

Frankly, I don't blame you for not really wanting to teach "grammar." I don't like it much myself. For me, it's always been intuitive. I liken it to someone with an affinity for math being harnessed to teaching kids their times tables all day long for a month and a half.

And that is exactly why it is so important. Grammar is the foundation of meaning. It is the consensus set of rules that allows us to speak to each other clearly, succinctly, and effectively, regardless of what idea we are attempting to communicate. And just as grammar would be nothing but empty rules without the ideas that illuminate it, those ideas would be a pretty palette of fuzzy colors without the structure of grammar.

Not the one without the other. Not the other without the one.

All the Best-

Brian Thornton
I know an author who wrote a promo piece to be sent out by his publisher. Someone in the publisher's office edited a correct "its" to an incorrect "it's" and sent it out -- but it was the author who was made to look uneducated by that gaff. He was rightfully livid.

No matter what a low priority you put on correct grammar, the person who uses it because he doesn't know any better simply looks dumb. A whole generation of new entries into the workplace have that extra hurdle to overcome before they can earn the respect of their co-workers who know how to write.

I would say, don't let them be lazy. Teach both.
You're misunderstanding me. I'm not saying I don't teach grammar, I teach it as a secondary lesson. It comes after I'm sure they're getting their idea across. At the same time, I can't let them give up on writing. How would you feel if I just sat there and asked all the questions about plot, argument and meaning, and then followed it up by saying "Oh yeah, you got all this grammar wrong too, fix that." After I'm happy they're saying what they mean, then we can go through line by line and clean up grammatical errors.
As long as they do it, yes. I'm speaking from two viewpoints, my day job workplace and my slush pile. Both show big holes in knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation, so it is obvious they aren't being learned the way they used to be.
(In full disclosure, I'm married to a teacher, who minored in English, so I tend to have strong views when it comes to education.)

I think there is a certain elitist attitude when it comes to grammar. I see it pop up on other lists, and it is irritating. Someone will write in something, and another person will knock it down because of typos or grammar or whatever. And that's just the grammar used in the posts. But about books and writing, It's going on at this moment on another very popular and well-loved list that doesn't use avatars. Some say blame the author, others blame the editor. I say try just sitting back to enjoy the story. I say this for a reason. Not all of us know proper grammar. Not all of us were privy to an exclusive education past the twelfth grade, and some not even that. And some of us persevered beyond the trials and tribulations of our lives to make something out of ourselves, even though we weren't fortunate enough to have a formal education.

I have to laugh at some of the bad grammar phrases posted and held up as examples of what some poor readers must suffer through. I don't get them. They're writing something that is colloquial in my part of the world, foreign and improper in theirs, and frankly, how can I recognize it as being bad if that's the way I was raised?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for raising my children correctly, teaching them proper English, correcting them in private when I hear them using whatever is the hot speech pattern in school, because I think it's important that they can speak two languages. The one that will help them succeed in the business life, and the other so they can walk the hazardous halls of their schools. But it really gets my goat (wait, wasn't that from the using cliches forum of last week?) when someone assumes that because I write I must have knowledge of and be an expert in good grammar. (We won't even go into the teacher, who reprimanded my daughter for asking a question on grammar, telling her that she should go home and ask her mother, who writes, and therefore must know the answer. Excuse me?) Here's the thing. I'm self-educated. I learned on the streets. Everything I know is from reading the love of my life, fiction. If you hear me talk, you'll figure out real fast that I speak a language foreign to the rest of the world, colloquial Californian. I don't often recognize some of the bad grammar examples held up on some of these lists, because I'm scratching my head, thinking, and yeah? Your point is? Because it's the way I talk.

More importantly, I had some great teachers in high school, who let me do what I did best. Use my imagination. They let me tell the story I wanted to tell. They didn't waste their time cutting down my grammar. They saved that for the tests. I'll be forever grateful to them. Well, Except for that one time when I learned the hard way what a misplaced modifier was. Looking back, the cops backing me up might not have pulled so many guns out on the guy I was chasing, had I known what can happen if you use a misplaced modifier with the word "gun" in it during a radio transmission. Maybe that grammar stuff is more important than I thought.
Well, to begin with; Happy Grammar's Day.

What? Oh yeah, that's tomorrow. most grammatical errors can be fixed El correcto mundo---and, they should be.

Oh, you're right the hole on page 202 is impossible to fix. Thanks for ruining my day. Ha! Just kidding. It was already ruined.

Anyway, I don't like lazy writing. I use horrid grammar to tell a particular tale, but i will not rite like this, I tell my kids I don't understand their instant message crapola.

When I started out in the business, I had a Copy Editor, I am not making this up. He'd read my stuff, and say use a conjunction instead of the elliptical...huh? I would ask. What the hell are they?

Anyway, grammar is boring---so this Copy Editor was younger than me, avoided the draft is what he did. And, just the kind a prick your protag would have to deal with on a regular basis.

"Dennis," he had to call me that cause he stumbled all over the newsroom with my last name. "Dennis, I thought you went to cover the football game last night. What is this? An article about a stolen tree...?

"Well, Sir,"

"Don't call me, sir"

"Okay, Stuey. The stolen tree was a black walnut worth $six thousand dollars and the cops helped the guy steal it."

"Listen, I'm leaving, but I expect the copy of the football game on my desk for the night run.

"Okey, dokey."

HEADLINE: East Lansing police do not find stolen black walnut tree at Haslett football game last night.

Yes, we were actually taught grammar. However, good writing should appreciate it while good dialogue demands something different.

I like your ending, Dave. Meaning, however, takes work.---ask Stuey
So Dennis--Were your walnuts in a sling?
Oh, Jordan,

My life has been hell---always sooo misunderstood.
Okay, I so totally don't agree with this.

You can be grammatically correct and still be a good writer with a good story. You need both. They rely on each other. Knowing and using proper grammar is not an impediment to creativity. Good grammar will only enhance the story. And in order to be a good writer, you must have the proper writing tools AND a wild imagination.

I wish that diagramming sentences was still taught in schools. Middle school. LIke when I was in middle school. Because correct grammar was hammered into my head so much so that it's just second nature. I don't even think about putting in a semi-colon, I just do it when the sentence calls for it. Commas? I know how to use them properly. I know how to form a grammatically correct sentence that still conveys the thought that I need to get across. I can still tell the story I want to tell.

Sure, there are times when my first person protag uses incorrect grammar, but that's dialog. People don't always speak with perfect grammar.

As writers, we need to emphasize the tools as well as the story. There are a lot of people with good stories to tell. But writing it down skillfully is what distinguishes the men from the boys, and if we don't use the proper tools, the skill is diminished.


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