April 19th, 2010

Workshop #7: Grammar

Workshop #7 was actually mainly about Images and Imagist poems, as I think I mentioned somewhere earlier, but we actually covered lots of other ground. Although it is really outside of my purview as the creative-writing person, I snuck in a grammar lesson. I really really want them to stop smudging stellar work with dumb grammar mistakes. I also want to put my foot down with the kids who say they are not “good” at grammar.

I think so many of these rules are like learning the multiplication tables or the provincial capitals–either you had a good teacher in grade 3 who made you memorize them, or you didn’t… The teacher I’m working with certainly does give some excellent grammar lessons, but the kids seem to have a deficit of years. You can get by in conversation a lot of the time–maybe always, depending on what career you choose–just by listening to how others talk and emmulating them, without knowing most of the rules of grammar. But it is much much harder to get written grammar in this way, especially for kids who don’t read except one forced. Lovely as it is to get self-righteous and say that reading for pleasure is a gift and parents just have to show kids blah blah blah, it doesn’t always happen. This is also an issue for kids who grow in homes where English is not the first language. They might hear tonnes of very erudite conversation, read books and watch high-end tv (or they might not), but if it’s not in English, it’s not helping them with their grammar.

So schools don’t teach grammar (I guess I can’t generalize, but mine certainly didn’t and I don’t know anyone else who learned English grammar in a systematic manner–do you?), and kids don’t always have the opportunity to pick it up elsewhere, and I end up with bright, engaged, insightful students who write things like, “She weared her prettiest dress,” and were genuinely startled to find out the past tense of “to lie down” is “to lay down.”

I am into good grammar, but I’m not fanatical about it–I roll my eyes when the grocer advertises “fresh” fish, but c’mon, do I know how to fillet a pickerel? He has his knowledge base and I have mine, and as long as we can understand each other, I don’t see myself as being in the position to make further demands. Chefs can’t make me stop putting barbeque sauce on my salad, and personal trainers can’t stop me from over-emphasizing cardio in my workouts, and fashion designers can’t make me stop wearing those turquoise fishnets I bought for $3 and which don’t fit…we can’t all be experts in everything, and sometimes, we don’t even want to be.

I am in favour of good grammar the way I am in favour of good etiquette–not as an end in itself, or as a stick to beat people with, but as a means of facilitating clear communication and conveying respect to the reader/person you are speaking to. Setting the table neatly shows care for your dinner guest’s ease and pleasure of dining. Yes, he could probably have gone and found a fork in the kitchen, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and yes, you do know what I mean when I say “I teared it open”, but it’s just that much more confusing, difficult, and less fun.

In class last week, I told the kids, “No one ever won a Nobel Prize for grammar”: it’s just a tool to get your point across. But they really need to get the tool–it makes their (good) work so inaccessible when I have to puzzle over when it takes place because the tenses are inconsistent, or who did what because the pronouns don’t match. I told them also that grammar is *not* a smart/dumb issue–if you’ve had less exposure to it, you know less, and it’s annoying that you have to make up for that, but all they need to do is sit down and memorize this stuff. Unfortunately, if they don’t bother, they will *look* dumb–I hope it wasn’t inappropriate to use that phrase with my students. Grammatical errors, being mainly simple and easily avoided if you just memorize the rules, look like they are made by dumb people when, in fact, they are mainly made by lazy people.

And then we did a bunch of conjugations and they had to copy things down off the board and everything–it was way old school. I hope it helped. I really think that good grammar will make their lives a lot easier–on resumes and cover letters, on school papers, work emails–people respect good grammar, because reading it is a lot easier than reading garbled stuff, and clean writing conveys respect for the reader.

All that said, in my little heart, I love language rules and am always eager to learn a new one, and to discuss and debate their usefulness and implications. I could talk your ear off about transitive and intransitive verbs, a topic very few people know about and yet very few people get it wrong in everyday writings. I don’t get to be smug, despite my copyediting classes and fervent adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style–I make tonnes of sloppy mistakes on this blog (as you likely well know) and in many other scarier places. The trick is not to just know a lot of stuff about grammar, but to know enough grammar to make clear all the other stuff you know.


5 Responses to “Workshop #7: Grammar”

  • Mark says:

    Awesome post, RR – one of your best. The last sentence is especially poignant. I may put its sentiment to use the next time someone accuses me of being too much of an egghead over good grammar. Thanks!

  • Ransermo says:

    Please forgive the back story, but I have a question that I would like your thoughts on.
    I count myself amount the people of bad grammar (bad grammarians?) and although I have worked to improve over the years. Still there is a gut reaction I feel when my grammar is thrown into question.
    When people correct my grammar, there is a sense (which I admit completely invalid in some cases) that they are hearing the medium and not the message. That what I'm saying is less important than how I say, or that they have ignored my point due to its poor language construction.
    In recent years with my god-daughter I find myself correcting her grammar and I see the same wounded look on her face.
    So my question is, how does one work to correct grammar without giving the sense you are not listening?

  • Rebecca Rosenblum says:


    I don't think it's usually worthwhile or fair to correct someone's grammar in conversation, because the rules for spoken English are much more relaxed than written, and people *say* all kinds of things they know far better than to *write*–run on sentences, fragments, comma splices…

    If I thought a friend was making an error because they genuinely didn't know it was wrong, I might say, You know, I'm thinking it's actually "I lay down" not "I laid down." It's a spinach-in-the-teeth thing–I would want them to hear it from a friendly friend so they can correct it before someone in a work situation/smug jerk does (and I don't recall ever mentioning anything grammatical to you, S, but if I did, that would be why!)

    And I think I try to always to respond to the content first ("Lucky you, getting to take a nap!") before tacking on the grammar lesson–that's kind of a bonus, I guess.

    Does that make sense?


  • Ransermo says:

    Yes, that makes sense. As I said it is an unwarranted fear that developed long ago, but I'm trying to avoid cultivating a similar fear in the children whose grammar I'm correcting (the joys of becoming old). :)

  • Andrew S says:

    My last schoolyard fight concerned subject-verb agreement. This other kid's fist was the verb, and my nose was the object.

    This happens when you're raised by an English prof.

  • Leave a Reply

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