For My First Post: I’m going to cheat

Hey guys, I’ve posted this piece a couple of places, but I wanted to see what reaction it would get from a different audience. Originally I posted this at my blog and over at Crimespace, so if you’ve seen this post there, my apologies for the cross post. More original work to follow in the coming days.

There’s a conversation going on on Crimespace about pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying “I could care less” when they mean “I couldn’t care less.” But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I’ll back off of that… simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That’s what I work on.

If a story starts:

“Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road.”

I am not going to sit there and help fix the “me and you” and the correct “your” first. I’m going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head’s spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write “Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda.”

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it’s easy to fix. You can–when you edit someone’s piece–say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it’s easier than saying, but there’s a plot hole here on page 202 and I don’t know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I’m always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I’m always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

FOR THE RECORD: This is in no way an attempt to trash teachers. I am a teacher and I believe in teachers. All teachers want to make students smarter and more well rounded young men and woman.

However, I think there is an old fashioned thinking vs. a new type of thinking among all citizens of the United States on whether or not grammar should be the key to good writing.

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7 Comments

  1. I started teaching a freshman comp class 32 years ago, and by now I’ve taught writing (rarely creative writing, more often composition, remedial (basic, developmental) writing, argumentative writing, business writing, technical writing and legal writing, writing for ESL students) at over 20 colleges and universities, as well as in high school and law school.

    When I started back in ’75, we had little access to the years of research and scholarship in composition theory we’ve had since then. There are huge debates on how writing can best be taught, whether to first graders composing their first sentences or to graduate students working on their dissertations. I’ve seen various trends come and go and come back: focus on process, on audience, on purpose, deemphasize grammar, etc. (At least once a week while I’m grading essays, I write on a paper: “Avoid using ‘etc.'”).

    But as a community college English Department chair I know who is retiring after teaching for a quarter-century longer than I have told me a few weeks ago: “There’s still very little that we know that actually has been proven to work to improve writing.” Teaching students how to combine sentences is one of those things that works, for example.

    I grew up in the 50s and early 60s when we diagrammed sentences (another trend recently revived) but I never thought about grammar much when I wrote. Thinking about grammar is certainly not useful in the drafting stage, but it’s crucial at the revision stage, the editing stage, and the proofreading stage.

    By the way, to a lot of us who teach writing, “grammar” is something apart from “mechanics” and “syntax” — although I think most people call all of these “grammar.”

  2. This is a great, insightful post by one of the most exciting young authors in crime fiction working today.

  3. “A” for content + “F” for grammar = “C” for final grade.

    Grammar is the least important thing in the first draft, but in the final draft, only the book’s characters, not the author, should be excused bad grammar.

    So say I, the Wicked Witch of Publishing….

  4. Larry Bienhart’s fabulous “How to Write a Mystery” — which is a great book about writing, regardless of whether or not you’re writing a mystery — says that grammar is much less important than the most important thing, *clarity.*

    Sounds a lot like what you’re saying, and I heartily agree.

  5. Obviously simple grammar is important. In fact, it’s all most of us use in writing and especially when speaking. It’ll suffice, but getting meaning across on the page is hard. That’s why the focus should be there, and the grammar should come later.

  6. As an ex-linguist, I always wince when I see “grammar” used to mean something like “prescriptive bias” – the fact is that simple grammar (and the complicated kind, too) is something everyone actually does learn and grasp just by having acquired some natural language or other. I do understand that prescriptive bias shapes the kind of writing style that the American professional class considers acceptable. To the extent that it does, pointing out deviations from that kind of style is not totally unimportant. But “correcting grammar” it’s not.

    That said, I agree that coherent argument and description take work. And in my experience teaching, I’ve found that students do improve stylistically after they nail down the basics in those areas.

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