A World of Speculation

It always goes this way. Someone mentions a grammar problem — in this case a novel, whose author is an English professor at a Seattle university, that is afflicted with dangling modifiers and even has an “it’s” used as the possessive. These errors can be as distracting as a “factual” detail that isn’t true or a character’s action that doesn’t follow or a tone shift from storytelling to preaching. It can pitch a reader utterly out of the story.

But unlike a catching a factual error or a tone shift, catching a stylistic problem (because dangling modifiers are not, strictly speaking, grammar but style) or a punctuation problem (see prior parenthesis) requires an advance apology. Mine is that I’m a grammatoholic, but I’m not trying to change.

That confession — of interest in the finer points of language usage — is always followed by someone who protests, “I don’t know anything about grammar, and I’m a terrible speller, and I’m scared of all these people who think it’s important.” And then someone inevitably brings up Flannery O’Connor’s saying that “Anyone who can only spell a word one way hasn’t got much imagination.”

There you have it. End of discussion. If you come back from that, you’re not only insensitive, you’re taking on Flannery O’Connor in an argument.

Well, I’ve got something else to say, and since it’s my blog I’m going to say it. I’m talking to writers now mainly, secondarily to anyone who wants to communicate effectively, especially in writing. If you’re a person of tender grammatical sensibilities and you don’t fit those categories, best move along.

First, I don’t care how Flannery O’Connor spelled in the drafts of her works; she was a master of the language and you don’t get her dramatic effect with dangling modifiers and misused apostrophes.

Second, any writer has to care about the use of the language — as a cook cares about food — because that’s all we have. And to say, “I don’t know anything about it and I’m afraid to be told I need to learn” is a copout. It’s no sin to say, “I don’t know”; but “I don’t know and I don’t care” is an offense against oneself as a writer and against one’s readers. The reader can glean our message only from what we lay out on the page. If we’re not master of our message, we cannot communicate it.

And it’s not that hard. I realize that the schools have been given over, by and large, to excusing “creative spelling” and “affirming” “natural” (read that, undisciplined) use of the language, so writers who graduated from such schools start at a disadvantage. But it’s not quantum mechanics. Here are a few steps to start from nowhere and over time, fairly painlessly, develop a mastery of the language:

  • Stop saying, “I’m bad at grammar and spelling”; it’s just an excuse for not trying. Start saying, “I’m working on my grammar and spelling.”
  • Think about words — where they came from, how they sound, what they mean. Get a good dictionary (also online) and, when looking something up — as many unfamiliar words as possible — look at all the definitions and the etymology, the history of the word. Ask what they have in common; ask why it’s changed. The answer may not come right away, but if the question is burbling in one’s brain, the answer that appears in a newspaper column or pops up in a conversation will bring the richeness of a found treasure.
  • Subscribe to A Word A Day, or something similar.
  • Buy a college grammar book — The Complete Stylist is the best I’ve read, available from Amazon.com starting at 50 cents, but the Harbrace College Handbook is another, or check the shelves of the local used bookstore — then read it cover to cover. It won’t take that long, and it’s not as boring as half the stuff in the daily paper (and a lot more relevant).
  • Explore the excellent grammar resources on the web. The Dictionary.com page is a good place to start, but there are many. Google your question and see what happens.
  • If you’ve got time, study an inflected language, such as Greek, Latin or Russian. It will expand your brain, give you a different perspective on time (literally — every language’s view of time is encapsulated in its verb tenses) and help understand the cases and genders in English. This is for extra credit.
  • Beyond that, take an interest. It doesn’t require correcting your grandma when she says “lay” instead of “lie,” but thinking about the difference between “lay” and “lie,” and transitive and intransitive verbs (though learning the terminology is not as important as learning the principles), and that gives you control over when to use what and why. If you choose to use a word against its conventional usage, that’s a choice you get to make, and as master of the word, you know what effect it will have and how that furthers your communication with the reader you have in mind.

And if you already know this stuff — or are in the process of getting better at it — do you want to take the pledge with me? No more apologies. I’m not a grammatoholic; I’m just a writer who takes an interest in her tools. I’m not gifted from God to understand the difference between “lay” and “lie”; I just looked it up enough times that I got it. I didn’t inherit my knowledge from my rich Uncle Edgar; I got a good chunk of it scowled into me from my eighth-English teacher, Miss Babers, and if you don’t have a Miss Babers in your life, I’ll be it for you.