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.