Death Sentence: or, Can you know too much grammar?

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I seem to spend as much time unlearning bad habits as I do trying to teach myself new ones. So, I am currently reading one of my many, many ‘How to Write’ books. This one is more specific than usual How to Write a Sentence by the erudite Professor Stanley Fish. My only problem with the prof is his tendency to run down The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (which just so happens to also be in my collection).

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I have two shelves in a bookcase dedicated to books about writing or language or linguistics.Dictionaries and other word compendiums feature strongly. I obsess about grammar and fear that I am actually a terrible grammarian. When I was growing up, Queensland schools stopped teaching proper grammar after the third year of primary school. We never got past learning about nouns, verbs and adjectives, and I was never taught about dangling participles and articles and tenses and what a gerund was. I had to wait until I was at university doing my creative writing course before I got the chance to really lean about grammar.

I managed to get the best marks for my two grammar/linguistic subjects. And yet I still collect grammar books.

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While I am writing, I try very hard to write correct sentences. But now that I am in the throes of editing, my obsession is overwhelming me.

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As you can see, I’m not exaggerating my collection – with the doubling up on the shelves due to lack of space.

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The grammar books and ‘how to write’ books are just the tip of my reference collection, but are probably just as important to me as my collection of fairy tales, myths, and legends from all over the world.

And this brings me to the heart of the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Can you actually know too much? Maybe I should worry less about the clarity of my grammar and just get on the story telling? But how can anyone build an inspiring structure with poor bricks and mortar?

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13 Comments

Filed under The Writing Life, Uncategorized

13 responses to “Death Sentence: or, Can you know too much grammar?

  1. Oh dear. You do have a problem. I wonder if your grammar-anxiety is acually cramping your style?

    I need to confess that I know dooley-squat about grammar. I still do not know what a gurand is (can’t even spell it.) Garund? Gurund? Gerund! – Still no idea, seriously.
    I probably use them all the time without even knowing it. Dangling participles? Isn’t that when you see a boy’s ball-bag dangling out of his undies in the changing rooms?

    Seriously, I don’t know shit about Grammar. Whatever I learned in school (more than you did) has long since evaporated. But it never stopped me from banging down thousands of successful sentences of sometimes astonishing complexity, many containing that phrase-within-a-phrase thingy, and getting a shit-ton of books published by happy editors who seldom commented but probably did on occasion correct my funny grammar, but hey – I was doing fine without any deep knowledge thereof. (Analyse that!)

    So to my central point: STOP STRESSING! Few people write the perfect sentence time after time, just like few film crews get the perfect take first time. They shoot a bunch of stuff, then cut and stitch it together later. It’s called ‘editing’. They can also edit in (or out) sound FX, VFX, re-takes of actor’s voice-work, etc etc.
    And that’s what you’ve gonna do! So just shoot some scenes. Let your players have their voice. Follow your instinctive lurches. Bang it down fast, write-write-write-write, and damn the grammar-pedoes!
    As they say in the movies – “We’ll fix that in post” (-production).

    And for writers, it costs nothing but our time. we can even go back, build an entirely new set, recall the actors, and reshoot the entire thing without spending another cent! We are gods.

    Gods don’t piss around with grammar. They CREATE!

  2. I have to agree with Ged. Who cares what a “gerund” is? Your readers sure as hell don’t. And I have no idea. (I looked it up once – I’ve forgotten – the world still turns.)

    The only question that requires an answer is: Is your intention communicating to the reader?

    Nothing else matters.

  3. Lynne,

    Your bookshelves virtually mirror mine!

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