It's time for another rant. Sure, I like to bring the happy with HWS, but I also enjoy laying down the law. Or...er...getting all worked up over things that most people don't care about. Today on the menu? Grammar and punctuation.
Yes, I'm looking at YOU. I know how you feel about the blessed G&P. You think it's a waste of time, perhaps. Or maybe that it doesn't really matter. "Oh, it's not as important as writing a good story," you say. "I don't need to know all the rules. That's what copy editors are for!"
YOU are wrong. Hopefully by the end of this post, YOU will reconsider your stance. Because your stance is LAZY, and it's not helping you, honestly.
I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect in this area. I am not asking for perfection, only a solid understanding of the English language and how to use (and even abuse) it. As a writer, I believe it is your duty to learn these principles. Writing is your craft, and the job only gets harder when you have dull tools.
Time for the handy dandy list! Why G&P matter:
1. Knowing Grammar = Knowing The Language
This is coming from an English linguistics major, so keep that in mind when I get all crazy about this. Grammar isn't just a bunch of rules—it is the foundation of our language. Grammar is a word that encompasses the syntax and morphology of a language. Sometimes even phonology and semantics.
How can you really write unless you understand, in detail, the makeup of the English language? Yes, you might be a native speaker, but I promise you that learning more about the actual English language will never, ever be a detriment to your writing. In fact, you should know more than the average person. As a writer, words are your medium, your way of expressing ideas. Not understanding grammar is like being an artist who uses oil paint but never actually learned how to manipulate that medium properly. It labels you as a novice. Harsh, but true.
2. Knowing Grammar = Knowing Where To Put Punctuation
Most people make punctuation errors because they don't understand grammar. Punctuation is simply a tool to clarify grammatical structures. So when you know grammar, the use of commas, semi-colons, dashes, periods, quotations, etc. becomes about a bajillion times easier.
In very basic terms, punctuation sorts out and organizes a language. In some languages, they use declensions and morphemes for this. Like in Japanese, the subject, object, and verb are labeled by a sound ("wa," for example, is a tag for "subject"). In English? Our subject, object, and verbs are largely dependent on sentence location (the subject first, verb second, and object third, in a basic sentence). When ideas get more complex, punctuation is needed to clarify English grammatical structures.
If you know the difference between an independent and dependent clause, you will know where to put a comma, period, or semi-colon. If you understand the difference between a gerund, prepositional, and infinitive phrase, you'll know how to use commas. G&P go hand in hand.
3. Using Proper Punctuation = Looking Professional
Since proper punctuation indicates a mastery of English grammar, it makes your writing look professional. It makes you look like a writer who knows his or her stuff. I know you want to think that a good idea will be enough to get you an agent or editor, but with competition so high it might not. Knowing G&P gives you an edge. It shows an agent/editor you are serious about this. It indicates that you have studied the craft.
4. Understanding G&P = Increased Ability To Express Yourself In Words
If you don't know the rules, you can't mold your writing into something beautiful. Well, maybe you can, but it takes a lot more trial and error. Sentence, paragraph, and word variation is key in creating interesting prose.
Let's look at a paragraph that has no sentence variation:
I went to see Harry Potter. I sat in the the theater. The theater was packed with people. A kid put his feet on my chair. I didn't like his feet on my chair.
That reads simplistic and boring for a reason. The sentences are all the same, essentially. Same structure and roughly the same length. Simply by varying structure, I'm sure all of you can make this into several different paragraphs.
When I went to see Harry Potter, people packed the theater. Some punk kid put his feet on my chair, which made my experience less than desirable.
You could write that a bunch of different ways, right? Now imagine if you knew the tools. I used a prepositional phrase in the first sentence. What if I changed that to an infinitive phrase?
To see Harry Potter, I had to push my way into a packed theater.
See how that changes it just a bit? Same basic idea, but a different emphasis. Ah, variation. It's the spice of writing, and G&P is the key. Why in the world would you deprive yourself of those skills?
Hopefully you are convinced that G&P might be something you want to learn or revisit. But what now? Where do you go to learn?
Well, you could take a class, of course. But for those who can't, you need to learn on your own, through books. When it comes to a grammar book, most are going to be roughly the same. I will not pretend grammar is super fun and entertaining. I learned grammar in college from a linguistic approach, which I found much easier than the traditional. For example: A noun isn't a "person, place, thing, or idea" in a linguistic approach, it's simply a morpheme that can accept a possessive or plural (monkey's, monkeys).
Find a book you can stand (hehe). There are all sorts of grammar books, from the humorous to the we-take-ourselves-way-too-seriously. There are also a ton of online resources a Google search away.
Once you have a decent grasp of grammar, I would recommend The Writer's Options. Please take note that this book isn't so much for teaching G&P—it is for applying and practicing. It teaches you how to vary your sentences, etc. Yeah, it's a pain, but most practice is.
Again, I encourage you to get serious about grammar and punctuation if you haven't already. It matters. A lot.