A Case for Technical Grammar Skills
While I was studying English in college (I later opted for a more practical course of study, and graduated with a degree in theater arts), one of the classes I took dealt with grammar. The professor’s pedagogical approach? Pass out mimeographed copies of his manuscript for a grammar textbook — do you care to carbon-date the year I took this class? — and spend most of each session plodding through a few pages, asking students to identify the part of speech of each word not in occasional exercises, because there weren’t any, but in the instructional text itself.
This was a monumentally boring exercise for me (I never polled classmates about their opinion), and the rote teaching strategy was somewhat surprising, too, because the instructor was an engaging fellow who was also a leading actor with a prominent regional theater company. On reflection, though, it might seem the ideal approach to someone accustomed to painstakingly memorizing lines in preparation for essaying a role. (For me, who later spent considerable time doing the same, it had a perverse logic to it.)
It didn’t work for me, though. I passed the class, but with only a tenuous grasp of grammar, and years later, well along in my editorial career, I was still shaky on the difference between adjectives and adverbs.
Does that really matter? Is a command of parts of speech essential for writers and editors? Yes, and no.
Some DailyWritingTips.com visitors praise me for writing posts about grammar. Others castigate me for boring them with the same entries. By the same token, my professor’s thespian approach to learning must have seemed ideal to some of my classmates, even as I sat there glumly disengaged, getting some parts of speech right but, as I recall, missing more than I hit.
So, even though I have relied throughout my career on a more holistic approach to shaping or reshaping my prose and that of others, trusting my instincts to know whether something reads well or requires (or is at least improved by) revision, I have also acquired a great deal of technical knowledge about grammar, and have benefited from this store of lore.
Another issue in the variety of responses to my posts about technical matters is that some site visitors are more experienced than others; a recent critic identified himself as a former instructor of college-level English. But for every retired academician, many readers are budding writers, would-be editors, and those for whom English is not their first language. With this disparity in mind, I try to not only cover a wide variety of topics (grammar, usage, style, technique, careers, etc.) but also discuss subjects with varying degrees of complexity.
In other words, I try to please some of the people some of the time, which I think is the best I can do. And the tip for the day? Even though I do not remember my grammar class fondly, I do think it had a latent effect on my desire to understand the mechanics of language, which I had never considered before (except in isolation, when completing a worksheet in a precollegiate English class).
So, even if you think of yourself as a holistic learner, rather than a technically inclined one, know your grammar vocabulary (like the difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced modifier), and endeavor to visualize sentences as machines whose components can usually be arranged in more than way but are often discovered, in one’s writing or reading experiences, broken and awaiting repair (or doomed, on the printed page, to a perpetual state of disarray). Rely on your Zen approach to crafting or reshaping prose if it works for you, but know your tools as well.
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