What everyone wants to hear is that, in the age of rapid-fire texting and 140-character tweets, grammar and spelling and punctuation and word choice have all gone the way of the manual typewriter. I don’t even argue with people about it any more. I figure that if it really doesn’t matter to them, fine. They can live in a world where you go along getting the broad gist of someone’s message but aren’t ever really sure exactly what they mean, where connotation is lost and subtle distinctions are ignored. Where “it’s hard to be lazy” and “it’s hard being lazy” mean the same thing (they don’t) and where “wahlaa” is the standard spelling and pronunciation of “voilà” (it’s not) and where nobody cares whether you use “lie” or “lay,” “further” or “farther.” And you know what? Most people will not care. They won’t notice, and they certainly won’t be any more confused than they already were if you say, “I’m going to lay down for a while.”
There are, however, those of us who will read that sentence and hear in our brains the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, and here’s what I want to say today: if you’re just a regular person sending notes to your friends and writing a blog just for fun, fine. You don’t need ever to think about split infinitives (which you’ll notice I just so deftly avoided back there) or when to use the subjunctive. No one will mind, and none of us will come and slap you on the hand.
If, however, you want to write (and that’s what we’ve been talking about here this past week), then you have a greater responsibility. Remember how I told you last week that part of your job is to give your editor what she needs and make her life as much easier as it’s possible for you to make it, especially if, oh, say, you might want to work with her again? This falls in that category. You want to master the rudiments of usage.
Am I saying you need to go to your community college and take a refresher course in grammar? Oh, no. No, no, no. Do not waste your time. Because, honeys, let me tell you this: I never had a teacher teach me any of this stuff. Most of the basics I learned from my mother, who grew up back in the day when they diagrammed sentences in grade school, and the rest–the big stuff–I learned in the graduate level grammar course I took to prepare us to teach freshman comp. Anywhere in the middle? Well, you might be lucky enough to get a teacher who adores grammar and wants to spread the joy, but chances are slim. Why? I think it’s like one of the artists I talked to recently who said that most art school instructors don’t teach students the rudiments of drawing because they themselves don’t draw.
I think that’s the way it is with English teachers, too. Oh, let’s be honest: after 16 years subbing in the public schools, many, many of those days spent in the classrooms of English teachers, I *know* it’s true. The notes I’ve read and the things I’ve heard would chill your soul. Now, before you yell about teachers, let me say that many of these people were excellent teachers, and that I adore teachers (having been married to one for the past 34 years and having been one myself), but that’s not the point. The point is that those things–grammar and usage–are important to very few people, and you’re not going to get a huge dose of those in a class where the instructor is trying to teach a bunch of other stuff.
Nope. You’re going to have to learn it on your own. Because if you’re going to write stuff that you hope will appear in print, then you’re a writer, and writers are the last bastion of literacy, of words that truly communicate instead of confuse, of ideas consigned to text that are clear and evocative. That’s going to be your job, so you should prepare yourself. How?
Read. Read good writing, not the stuff you find in gossip magazines and other people’s blogs and in your local newspaper (unless you have one that’s a whole lot better edited than my local paper–I used to have the editor on speed dial so I could call her and point out all the mistakes on the the front page–not the whole paper! No! Just the front page. And I promise you that I was not the only person who noticed this). People expect that what appears in print will be accurate, and as a writer, it’s your job to try to help. Read books about language. Read grammar textbooks. Read Strunk and White (The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, perhaps the best small book on grammar and usage ever written). Read William Safire. Read the book review section of The New York Times. Read writers who love language, see how they use it, and then read books that explain why.
To be a better writer, you do two things: you read. And you write. You learn the rules, and you practice, and then, like Picasso said about learning to draw realistically before you break the rules–*then* you can break the rules.
And flaunt the one that says you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
In the meantime, though, what you want to do is learn to write so that people reading what you’ve written will have confidence in your ability. It will make editors want to work with you and readers want to take time to read you. In short, it will make your writing life so very, very much easier. Plus it’s just really, really fun: what could be more exciting than learning all the possible uses of the semicolon? See?
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