If I had a dollar for every time someone (often a co-worker) asked me an obscure grammar question (often to settle an argument with someone else), I’d probably have enough to buy a second car (and a really nice one, at that). If, however, I had a dollar for each time that one of those thousands of questions involved an actual rule of grammar, I might be able to get a latte or two. By which I mean, a lot of what people think of as grammar is actually about style or usage or it’s about spelling. And even more important, language isn’t like physics: it isn’t defined by anything analogous to the fundamental underlying properties of the universe. Language is something we have made-up (collectively), and continue to make-up as we go along. The process isn’t rational. And the resulting language doesn’t follow algorithmic rules like algebra or computer programming does.
A lot of people think that writers are obsessed with rules of grammar. They also think that good writing requires an extensive vocabulary of obscure words. Similarly they assume that anyone who has ever had the job title of editor is perfect at spelling and is even more obsessed with grammar. Those are copyeditor skills, which is different.
Don’t get me wrong, understanding how language works and having a facility with words are important skills for a writer, but words aren’t like gears and pulleys and cogwheels, and writing isn’t like assembling a machine. Words aren’t even the fundamental tool of a writer.
It is true that I am fascinated by dictionaries and have quite a collection of them. But open up a good dictionary and skim down the page and you will notice that just about every word has multiple definitions. Words have meaning, yes, but they have lots of meanings, and not always terribly precise ones at that. For example, let’s take the word “bear,” and imagine for a moment that you were explaining our language to an alien. If you told this alien that the word refers to a large omnivorous mammal with thick fur and plantigrade feet, what would that alien make of these sentences:
- The petitioner will bear the cost of the investigation.
- My manager is a real bear.
- Before accepting the offer, bear in mind the responsibilities that come with it.
- And then the bear flashed his lights, and I knew I was going to get a ticket.
That’s only four of the six definitions of “bear” that are listed in one of my dictionaries. Now at least one of those uses is metaphorical, but the verb “bear” meaning to carry something is spelled and sounds exactly like the noun “bear” which refers to an animal. The only way you can know which meaning of the word is meant is to hear it in a sentence.
The fundamental unit of a story isn’t the word, it’s the sentence. Yes, to understand a sentence you need to know the various meanings of the words in the sentence, but not necessarily all of them. You can often understand a sentence which uses a word you never heard before. Lewis Carroll composed a poem, “Jabberwocky,” in which nearly every sentence contained at lease one nonsense word he made up for the purpose:
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
Nobody knew what galumphing meant when Carroll wrote the poem, but everyone who read or heard it at the time inferred that it meant to move or run in some manner, perhaps similar to a gallop or maybe more of a loud blundering through the woods. In any case, an image of the triumphant hero making haste toward home carrying the head of the defeated creature was conjured by the sentence with the nonsense word. Never mind that vorpal was also a word that Carroll made up. Most nerds know exactly what it is: a magically sharp sword, right?
Anyway, being a writer isn’t about making text pretty. Nor is it about mastering the rules of grammar to somehow hypnotize readers with the mystic powers of predicates, prepositions, and pronouns. It’s about telling a story. In my day job I may be telling the story of what problems a particular software product solves. In my fiction writing I may be telling the story of how a thief with a cursed artifact will save the world. And here on the blog I may be telling the story of why marginalized people try to find hints of themselves in cultural events. Humans tell stories–we construct narratives–to give things meaning.
You can’t tell a story if you’re obsessing over the proper placement of a comma (the rules of which are infinitely less restrictive than you think). You can’t tell a story if you’re arguing with yourself about which synonym for brown best describes the color of your protagonist’s eyes. You can’t tell a story if you’re writing, deleting, and re-writing the opening sentence of your tale, each time changing just one adjective. Neither can you tell a story if you’re beating yourself up about the fact that you haven’t been able to finish it when you want to. It’s as useful as crying over spilled milk.
Which is about as useful as arguing about so-called rules of grammar. The final test is whether a reader understands it, and whether they care enough to get to the end. If they do, you wrote correctly.
Now, bring me a coffee, pour yourself your favorite beverage, and let’s see what kind of tales we will tell!