On Grammar • 20 November 2007 • The SnowBlog

On Grammar

Okay, so let me set the scene. I know that the American school system is often seen as failing ruled by standardized tests, undemanding, more concerned with getting everybody through than with actual education, and so on. Im not really concerned with whether or not you agree with this assessment; I feel that its generally correct today, that it was just as accurate when I was in school. But there are exceptions, teachers who manage to engage their students and impart actual knowledge. I had such a teacher in high school, for Honours Composition (we, of course, called it Honors Composition, because we were in America). This teacher was something of a legend in our school district; the rumours began in junior high: weekly vocabulary quizzes, grammar tests, the impossibility of a perfect score on an essay. Each semester, this teacher would begin class by describing the appropriate format for papers. Hed draw a diagram on the blackboard and point to the parts. This was where your name and class information should be, exactly one third of the way down the page, centred. The little line in the top corner? That was the staple; note how it was parallel with the top of the page, not diagonal. He expected students to moan about the rigidity of these requirements (failure to comply with staple alignment could result in lost percentage points, after all), so he pre-empted the complaints with a simple explanation. This is the format I require, and if you want full points, this is how youll do it. Lest that sound too much like a parent shouting because I said so, his explanation went on: If you were writing an article for National Geographic, they would have their own requirements. If you dont follow them, your piece wont get considered. I dont know why the publication in question was always National Geographic, but it was. He was always very consistent on that point (and all others). Anyway, the same rules applied to grammar in our essays. It was he who taught us this grammar in the first place, so he knew we should have learned it and therefore could be pretty merciless. Each mistake was a percentage point lost. Missed out a comma? 99% Didnt spot that (obvious) typo on the second page? 98% Is that a preposition at the end of a sentence? Christ alive. 97% And so on. There was no excuse for not knowing basic grammar, and why would you expect anybody to waste their time on something you couldnt even be bothered to proofread properly? And that surprise! brings us to the present. I spent about twelve hours yesterday reading submissions. Okay, I took a few breaks. But whenever I go on a bender like that, I wind up frustrated and confused. I generally try to give each submission a real chance to impress me, but I have to admit to rejecting some after the first paragraph. The errors! The typos! Why would they expect me to waste my time on something they couldnt be bothered to proofread properly? The answer is that you cannot. I wont waste my time on something that shows a lack of effort. Now, Im not as particular as my teacher was. Theres a lot of prescriptive grammar out there that just doesnt make sense these days. I dont actually care about prepositions at the ends of sentences. Got a bucket of infinitives? Split away. Grammar should aid clarity, right? And a lot comes down to context. Ill forgive most mistakes in a blog post Ill make mistakes in a blog post! I generally will make an effort to use the right words and spell things correctly in an e-mail, because thats what sounding like an intelligent person is all about, but I wont go to pains to find the perfect phrases. Ive even been known to skip capital letters altogether when I instant message. So everything in its proper time and place. But whether it was my high school indoctrination or just a general tendency towards being anal and humourless, I cannot for the life of me fathom how a person can finish a novel and start sending it out before theyve checked it through for errors. Particularly when there is so much writing out there for publishers to choose from. Is that really the best first impression a writer can make? Hello, I would like to work with you. Sadly, Im a little bit lazy and so havent taken the time to correct the most obvious of typos, but I hope that wont get in the way of what could be a beautiful relationship. Sometimes I stop myself and realize that, wait, not everybody had the excellent teachers I had. Not everybody fell in love with linguistics in college. Maybe they just dont know theyre making huge mistakes, eh? Who can blame them for that? But wait! Wait again! These are writers. Maybe not published authors, possibly not even that experienced, but these are people who want me to look at their work and say, You are a writer, look what you have written. I like it and wish to publish it! (Incidentally, thats not my actual line when we accept a book for publication UNTIL NOW!) And if theres one thing a writer has to be good at, its writing. No, man, its all about story telling! Youre harshing my mellow with your talk of grammar and rules. Get off my back! True enough, right? Story tellings the important part, isnt it? But heres the thing: there are venues for storytelling. There are groups who get together and stand on stages and stories burst forth from their mouths and its amazing and glorious. Ive been there, Ive heard it. So if thats what youre after, do it. Go there and revel in your streams of consciousness and throw all the rules out the window. However, if you want to turn that story into a novel, one thats published in book form for a wide and varied audience to read, its not enough to be just a story-teller. You need to learn to be a writer. Surprisingly, that might really mean learning something. Like what a comma is for. When to use a semi colon. The difference between who and whom (aaiiieeeee!). The problem is that we use language in our everyday lives, so we figure we must know enough to have a go at this writing thing. But can you imagine dabbling in anything else trying to turn it into an earner if not a career, as I suppose our submitters are doing without doing a bit of research? I live in a house; I even take care of it. I use the basement stairs every day, right, but that doesnt mean Im ready to be a builder. So I dont really see ignorance as an excuse when it comes to this stuff. If I had the time, money, and inclination, Id send back at least half our submissions with a copy of Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style and a note saying Try again. But I dont, partly because of that time and money stuff, but also, as I mentioned before, theres so much out there. I think people understand that theyre up against steep competition or at least an awful lot of it. But most people would never bother submitting if they didnt think they had a chance, and if they have a chance, maybe they have a pretty good chance, so lets just chuck em this manuscript and see what happens, eh? There are so many ways to judge a submission, from originality to interesting characters to our old friend story-telling. To craftsmanship (which is where grammar and language fall). Everything needs to be in balance and needs to be good for a manuscript to be considered. The thing about grammar is that you cant hide it. Ive got nearly to the end of a submission before only to discover that the plot wasnt as strong as Id hoped it would be. By that point, Id become so invested in the story and the characters that maybe I was willing to work with the author, to give over some of my time in the hope that we could create something I could publish. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesnt. But bad grammar just sits there. It sits at the beginning of your novel, it sits at the end, and its packed so tightly in between the two that Ill never get past it. Bad grammar sings out its crappy song, begging to be noticed at every turn. I havent got time for that, not when other people have gone to the effort, at some point in their lives, to learn what makes good writing good. Even if you dont care a lick about what Ive just said (but well done you for reading it all, if thats the case!), if grammar just pure-and-simple doesnt apply to you, but youre still going to submit because nobody can resist your rambling sentences and esoteric wit nobody! please learn at least one thing (or two er, three) for me: Learn what makes a traditional sentence subject, verb very basic. Learn to identify when you have joined up these sorts of clauses into compound sentences (and when you have not). Learn how to use a comma to separate these clauses. I didnt have to wait for an amazing high school teacher to learn this stuff, and Im willing to bet you didnt either. So please refresh your memory. Grammar isnt tricky, but you cant count on your instincts for the prescriptive stuff. Maybe you think only bossy nerds would waste their time caring about all this, and perhaps thats true. But Im the bossy nerd with my finger on the reject button.


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