Grammatically Correct

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to one of Author’s most consistent and yet least recognized contributors: Grammar maven Cherie Tucker. My relationship with Cherie began long before her inaugural column back in June of 2008.

It was my first writer’s conference, and there was Cherie teaching a class on grammar to a packed room. She had a nice sense of humor and passionate grasp of a topic to which I was personally indifferent. I had what you might call an intuitive understanding of grammar. That is, I spoke in full sentences, my verbs almost always agreed, but – particularly in writing – I was never entirely sure about whether a comma really belonged and if I should use “which” or “that.”

This approach had worked fine for a time, but I eventually began to worry about those letters and sample pages I was sending to agents. I did not like the idea that a few grammatical hiccups in the first or second paragraph might sour a prospective reader, nor – and perhaps worst of all – that identifying said hiccups was beyond my powers. If a letter or chapter was grammatically spotless, it would be so by chance, not acumen.

So I hired Cherie to read a short story I had written and teach me everything I had chosen to ignore in Freshman Language Arts. To this day I can remember nothing she taught me that afternoon except this: somehow in her little lesson she managed to convey that the purpose of grammar was to help make clear what I was trying to express.

That was the moment I made grammar my own. Proper grammar wasn’t some series of hoops lowered from on high for every hopeful writer to jump through. Commas, and em-dashes and verb agreement were tools of my expression. I could use these things to help capture the nuance of what I wished to share. I became a grammar fan that day.

All of this seems obvious enough in retrospect, but such is the case with the most valuable lessons. The truth is always clear once you see it, and I am glad for people like Cherie who continue to share what they have known effortlessly for years.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Sole Authority

Lisa Tracy said something very interesting in her interview in this month’s issue. Lisa has worn many hats in her writing life—from editor, to journalist, to teacher. As is often the case, Lisa taught not just aspiring writers, but a great many undergraduates taking what was an assigned class. With the latter, her job was to instruct these sometimes less than enthusiastic students the in basic craft of writing, from grammar to topic sentence and so on.

How did she do this? She found her best tool was to allow the students, as much as was possible, to select what it is they wanted to write about. Typically she encouraged them to write about their own experiences. Not surprisingly (at least to me), once the students decided to write about what was interesting and important to them, their papers improved. What was surprising was that not only was what the students wrote more engaging and dynamic, the grammar improved as well.

Think about that for a moment. Why should grammar improve? Isn’t grammar merely a function of knowing where to put a comma or whether to use “which” or “that”? In one way, yes. For instance, unless she’s dozing at her computer, I doubt Cheri Tucker is ever going to slip into the passive voice. So it is true that if you’re practiced enough, whether you’re writing your magnum opus or tech support, your grammar is probably going to be fine.

But what if your familiarity with all the rules of grammar is still evolving? Why would it improve depending on content? Because grammar is not dogma. Grammar’s only function is to make the writer better understood, to mimic thought and speech in such a way that the reader grasps the writer’s intention as quickly and completely as possible.

And when does someone want to be understood? When they have something they very much want to share. When someone has something they very much want to share they are no longer trying to get a good grade, or follow the rules—they are simply trying to communicate. Like the mother who can lift the car off her trapped child, so too the jolliest Frat Boy can summon his knowledge of grammar if he actually cares about the story he is telling. Personal desire remains the purest motivator available to man—not fear, not greed, not lust—for while those other things might drive you here or there, only personal desire empowers the individual with the sole authority over what is right and what is wrong.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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