Monday, November 22, 2010

Why Grammar and Punctuation MATTER

It's time for another rant. Sure, I like to bring the happy with HWS, but I also enjoy laying down the law. 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.


  1. I'm in a persuasive writing class right now, and it's amazing how much I've learned about important details on the sentence level. My approach to mixing up sentences has mostly just been "it sounds better this way," but I love that I've learned why! At least, for some things. It makes me wish I had time to take a class on writing style, but alas, I am graduating next semester and that is no longer an option.

  2. Thanks! I'm first in line to go find a grammar book I can stand. :)

  3. I am in COMPLETE agreement on how important grammar and punctuation are!

  4. Definitely agree--though WHOA grammar books are boring! Took me forever to wade through The Elements of Style. But I'm glad I did. It made me a better writer.

    (*Is scared to keep going for fear of leaving a comment riddled with G&P errors*)

  5. YES! Completely agree. I'm so glad I had really good teachers who drilled a lot of this into my head early on.

    Grammar Girl is a great resource, by the way. You can subscribe to her podcasts, purchase her book, follow her on Facebook... She's everywhere.


  6. Great post! It's really sad that grammar isn't taught in a lot of schools. I know a lot of grown people who struggle with even basic G&P. I recommend The McGraw Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. It's easy to follow and not too boring (considering it's a book on grammar).

  7. I've realized that writers are starting to care less and less about grammar and punctuation, including me. In school, grammar and punctuation have never been my favorite to learn. Which is odd, considering I'm a writer. I guess I'm just more in love with the writing itself rather than the rules I must learn in order to write.

    Thank you for sharing! I really needed this. =)


  8. Strunk & White's THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is a great basic rule book for grammar and punctuation, too. A bit dry, but so short and helpful!

  9. Yes! And for the love of the language, people, please learn your homophones!

    to =/= too
    reign =/= rein
    your =/= you're


    I thought things were bad on that front, but after hearing a law professor lament his students use of text speak to write their legal briefs.... good Lord people.

    He said they honestly couldn't understand what the big deal was if they used "UR" for your / you're, etc. For legal briefs. Legal. Binding. Lawyer stuff. Things that should be as precise as possible.

    Is this an American phenomenon or world wide?

  10. I totally agree!

    (Though I got *nothing* out of Strunk and White, and I can't fathom why people like it so much.)

  11. Yes. Writing without good grammar is like trying to do ninjutsu without knowing how to throw a basic kick. Maybe you can do it, but it looks sloppy and I'm still going to kick your butt.

  12. Nice blog, Natalie! In my day job we're all about proper use of the language, so I appreciate you frankness. I have a friend who works for the local university's newspaper, and it's amazing the number of articles that are submitted using netspeak. Ack!

    You might get a kick out of this. I used it in a recent training I did:

  13. I was just thinking about how I need to brush up on my grammar and punctuation. Sometimes, I feel really insecure about my usage of punctuation. Time to refresh! Thanks for the post!

  14. This is something I really need to work on. As a kid, I read a lot so I often go with the G&P that 'feels' right. But I really should know what actually is correct and what isn't! Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Grew up British style. Can't train myself into American grammar for heck.

    Also, on no punctuation, this gem:

    i helped my uncle jack off a horse

    If you thought it wasn't important...

  16. Great post. As a college English teacher, I work on students every day who are convinced that grammar rules are silly and unnecessary. Once they see what their sentences are SAYING, however, they realize why punctuation exists, and, even more important, they see that writing isn't emoting--it's communicating.

    Everyone wants to be understood. Grammar and punctuation, properly used, make that far more likely.

  17. I teach English as well, and I absolutely support the message and spirit of your post. Please allow me to point out an error in one of your examples, however:

    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.

    The first sentence does NOT include a propositional phrase; it includes an infinitive phrase within a subordinate (adverbial) clause. In each of the examples, "to see Harry Potter" is an infinitive phrase.

    I know you said in your introduction that you are not perfect in this area (who is?), but I thought it important to point out. That doesn't change the fact that each of your revisions provides a different emphasis, and you are SO right to say--and show--that mastery of syntax is critical for the master writer.