Hey there, guys and Galahads. It’s Wednesday, and you know what that means.
Yes, I’m finally going to give you my six-hour southern cabbage recipe.
Or–wait. No, that’s Saturday. Wednesday means I’m going to shout genuinely meant and improperly researched invective at you, while keeping my own self-loathing and scandalous doubt close to my chest. Enjoy!
Today’s Writing Wednesday topic, after seconds of careful consideration, is grammar.
No, we’re not going to go over your/you’re and their/they’re, or when it’s all right to split an infinitive (answer to this one: more often than you’d think). We’re not going to pinpoint the locations of periods, commas, and colons, or designate the precise difference between the em-dash and the en-dash. There are plenty of books about these things out there, all of them written by people much more qualified than me, some of which I’ll list at the end of this post. Fuck, guys, this is me. I barely know what an em-dash is.
What I would like to talk about is why grammar is important. And, you’ll be happy to know, this has nothing to do with that self-righteous bitch Aunt Cialys (who heard your speech at cousin Lamictalia’s wedding, adjusted her trifocals over her rheumy eyes, and muttered: “actually, young lady, it’s who, not whom”).
It has nothing to do with that recurring nightmare you’ve had ever since tenth grade, where you’re trapped in a classroom, diagramming sentences, and the bell just never rings.
I want to be very mothefucking clear on this, because it’s a matter of some small importance in my life. I hate–got that?–hate. A goddamn grammar Nazi. But do I think grammar is important? Yes. But not for the same sophistic reasons your neighborhood Grammar Gestapo does.
My reasoning goes something like this. Long ago–many thousands of years ago–there was no representation of the spoken word whatsoever. When people wanted to leave a message with other people outside the range of a human voice, they were pretty well fucked. It took a long time for ideas to spread. Some ideas never spread.
Then, one day, some guy (we’ll call him Eggiweg) had a brother, or a friend, or something (henceforth: Lomtickitoast). Eggiweg was leading his cave-group through the area, and there were a lot of bears, because I like bears and there should be more of them.
Eggiweg said: “Holy Nonspecific Gods of Cavepeople, there are a lot of bears all up in this bitch. Man, if only my brother Lomtickitoast, leaded of the Whitehead Clan, were here to see them with me. He’d know to go all the way around this place, and be spared dealing with like umpteen bears.”
There was probably a fire that night. I like to imagine the people of Eggiweg’s Runningsore Clan were roasting some goddamn bear, after a day of surprised but successful hunting. There were sticks of half-charred wood lying all around. Eggiweg looks at them, looks at the blank walls of the cave his people are staying in, and has a capital-I IDEA.
“What if,” our caveman intellectual says to himself, “what if I were to take this charcoaly stick, apply the tip to the cave wall, and attempt to represent in a more-or-less accurate pictoral fashion the metric fuckton of bears we have found in this location? Then, perhaps, my brother Lomtickitoast would see my drawing, and connect it with the fuckton-of-bears possibility always lurking on the horizon for myself and my people. Genius! Lomtickitoast will be sure to thank me, when next we see each other at the Great Gathering of Cavepeople That Isn’t At All A Block Party. He might even refrain from hitting me on the head with his club this time, and giving me a purple nurple.”
And in this fashion, the first writing was born. The first message was left, the first steps towards written communication enacted. And that’s all great. Really.
But what I’ve always wondered is: what happens when Lomtickitoast sees the drawing?
Does he immediately go “oh, shit, this amateurish charcoal is telling me there’s a boatload of bears in the area, and I and my people should probably stay away?”
More than likely, no. More than likely, Lomtickitoast looks at that wall and goes: “gosh, these charcoal smudges are weird-looking. They look almost purposeful, like someone was trying to draw OH MY TRIBAL GOD, IS THAT LIKE FIFTY BEARS OVER THERE?”
And, once the bears had properly digested Lomtickitoast and his brave band of warriors, there was no one left to appreciate the effort.
Fast forward a few thousand years.
If Eggiweg had been able to write properly, imagine how different that effort would have been. If the message on the cave wall had been:
There are bears here. You’re bear bait if you stay.
That’s pretty clear, right? You are, evidently, bear bait if you stick around this cave for too long. But a few minor changes and:
There are bears here. Your bear bait, if you stay.
And we have a very different story. Oh, so for some reason they need my bear bait, if I’m going to stay here. I guess they’re getting low on honey. Gotta feed all those bears somehow.
The story could go two very different ways. One of them, the first example’s outcome, involves Lomtickitoast getting the warning and also the fuck out of dodge. The second one involves Lomtickitoast piling all his honeycomb and dead salmon at the front of the cave like a sacrificial offering, sitting back, and waiting to be eaten.
From its very earliest days–I’d imagine, from the first time it was ever attempted–writing has been all about sending the clearest message possible. It’s a method for conveying ideas–some of them complicated–to people who aren’t necessarily right next to you at the bar, and who can’t easily understand why ohmigawd, making a giant cheese wheel that grates itself is just the best idea everrr.
If you want to get Brother Lomtickitoast bear-eaten, by all means, continue on with your crude charcoal-sketch approximation of language. If you want him to see your message and understand as quickly as possible that he needs to get the fuck out of there, try out a comma or two. Or, if you’re feeling wild, a semicolon. Whatever the situation calls for.
Like I said before, I’m no grammar Nazi. I’m not particularly concerned with whether or not you used that colon in the MLA-proper place, or whether your character said who and meant whom. And my texts and occasionally even blog posts are just as lower-case fantastic and punctuation-insensitive as yours.
But I am reading your story because I want to become immersed in it. I want to lose myself in the world you’ve created, identify with the characters, experience their crisp autumn days and oppressively hot summer nights with them.
For me to do this, your writing needs to be almost transparently clear. You are, after all, describing a scene that never existed, people who never existed. I can’t look at a picture to make sure I’m imagining everything right. So your writing becomes a tool–a tool to get me places I want to be.
And I’m reasonably well educated, and reasonably well read. And mean. Did I mention mean?
So when I see, in your otherwise sterling publication, a character moving ‘further’ away, or ‘farthering’ an idea, it’s like someone grabbed me by the hair, yanked me out of Yourbookington, and said: “here, now. This place isn’t real, and there’s visible evidence on this page that the author hasn’t finished high school. How can you believe this place is real if the author is leaving turd-trails of unfinished education all over this novel?”
Your characters can say ain’t. If you’re writing in a certain style or voice, you can even say ain’t.
But if your characters are all post-doc, and they live in high rise Manhattan apartments, I better not see the word ain’t. it just doesn’t fit with the story, and not fitting with the story means pulling me out of your world.
Is your scene rushed? Is a lot going on, is it super-tense? You might want to indulge in some piled-on commas or run-on sentences. But when there’s a break in the action, when there’s room to breathe, that shit better stop, for the simple reason that I need to breathe too.
Grammar, my dear, is a part of your language and a part of your voice. And even if you have reasons to use it incorrectly–and there are some good reasons, related especially to mood and setting–you better know why your usage is incorrect, and precisely what it’s doing.
Grammar is one of the many tools in your belt of Intelligent Storycrafting. Like most tools, you can use it for its intended purpose, or you can use it creatively. But if you don’t know what the tool is for–or, God forbid, if you’re unaware it exists–you can’t use it at all. The question, summarily, isn’t ‘to Oxford Comma or not to Oxford Comma’. Both are technically correct. The question is: ‘does an Oxford comma make this sentence more or less easy to read?’.
So, while I don’t encourage you to scour your story for split infinitives and putrescent punctuation, I do encourage you to brush up on your grammar a little before sitting down to pen that masterpiece. Because your/you’re might be the life-or-death difference to Brother Lomtickitoast. Or, less vitally, there might be someone like me in your audience. And, every time you write something about ‘you’re characters two mother’s’ I’m going to look up indignantly and go:
“Well, I guess we just found the child Laura Bush didn’t want left behind.”
And that doesn’t sound like the sentence that precedes a five-star review, now does it.
If you want a good basic grammar education, I highly recommend these books:
1) Strunk and White’s eternal Elements of Style. This is a classic, pretty much the Casablanca of grammar, and every writers needs a copy sitting right by the laptop, where it can wait to be consulted with pathetic eagerness. I actually need a new one. Mine has been around so long it loses pages every time I pick it up.
2) Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. She makes the point I just made, only better and funnier. This is one of the few grammar books out there that you will want to read. And for that reason, though there are myriad others as well, it’s one of the best.
And, for those of you idiot writers who ‘don’t read’ (what the hell is wrong with you?) here are a few Internet resources, reasonably reliable, to round you out. Though I feel like I shouldn’t be helping you bastards out at all. What sort of writer doesn’t read? Shame on you!
1) This Guide to Grammar and Writing is concise, simply written, and very easy to navigate. If you need help with the basics, this is the place to go.
2) Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is worth a read as well, preferably directly after reading Lynne Truss. Have to say, I think his point would’ve been made a little better if he’d spent less time correcting her grammar in turn, but it’s a good point nonetheless.
3) Times and rules change. Well–to be fair, the rules don’t change often, but whether or not we give a shitake mushroom about them does. when we do care, and our question is perhaps too modern for Mssrs. Strunk and White especially, there is Grammar Girl.
3) This grammar guide is the full deal. Sometimes a little too full for my tastes, even. Again, however: to break the rules, you have to know them.
4) Just can’t bring yourself to bother with all of this learning stuff? Get Grammarly. Will it serve you half as well as some careful human consideration? No. Is it better than Word’s grammar checker? Um, yes.
This brings me, actually, to my last point. Maybe my biggest point. It’s a point, in fact, that I will be making a lot.
Nothing will make your comma placement better, your language cleaner, your waterfall of colons, semicolons, and em-dashes more instantly recognizable, than reading.
If it’s been published in a big house, or even if it’s just been published by someone who took the time to shake, rattle, and actually edit, the grammar’s going to be pretty good. And, like swimming, you need to immerse yourself to learn. You can read instructional posts about where that comma’s supposed to go all damn day. But if you actually see it in action, fifty or five billion or however many it takes times, you’ll be much wiser. And the best part is, you’ll just kind of know. No grammar worksheets or sentence diagrams required.
So read. Jesus Carjacking Christ, read.
Much love, you guys.