As a bright, eager, and woefully ungrammatical undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having a professor kind and honest enough to tell me the following: “Jeff, you are bright and eager, but you are also one of the most ungrammatical beings ever to dangle a modifier.” This, as you might imagine, didn’t feel great, but it was also probably one of the most important moments of my student life.
Since then, grammar and style have been foremost in my reading and writing brain. (Not in my regular brain, which is mostly concerned with coffee, trivia, and pajamas. Also, there was a non-restrictive pronoun in that last sentence. Did you see it?). I’m not naturally a competent writer; it’s taken many years of attention, mistake-making, and practice to get to the point where I’m pretty confident that my sentences are not uniformly embarrassing. I still live, however, with the convert’s fear of back-sliding.
Though my initial motivation for knowing the difference between a colon and a semi-colon was academic, a decade of trying to help students get better at using language has shown me that there are really only two reasons to care about grammar: to be understood clearly and to avoid being thought a moron. That’s really it. Using “its” correctly is neither an ethical issue nor is it a sign of our educational decay.
Chastising people for making a mistake or not knowing grammatical standards (I will never use the word “rule” when it comes to language) changes the end of good grammar from pragmatism to morality–a persnickety, ungenerous morality at that. In my experience, championing an abstract value to good grammar doesn’t motivate anyone to change, but showing them why good writing is good writing often can.
So this column will be about grammar and style and language and good writing and bad writing and average writing and why strings of coordinating conjunctions can be both grammatically correct and indulgent at the same time. Sound fun? I thought so.
And now a little homework for next week? (Note to self: starting sentences with “and” and other conjunctions. Also, “Sentence Fragments: Friend or Foe?”
1. Let me know in the comments if there are any specific grammatical questions or style conundrums that you would particularly like to see addressed (this sentence alone has passive voice and a restrictive pronoun. Maybe these?)
2. A self-test. Take a look at the below sentences and see if you can spot the grammatical errors. Explanations next week.
a. You are disoriented. Blackness swims toward one like a school of eels whom have just seen something which eels like a lot.
b. If I was to try and take a cat apart, the first thing I would have is a non-functioning cat.
c. Can you believe these new girls? None of them use birth control and they ate all the steak!
d. You know why its so clean in California? It’s because they don’t throw there garbage away, they turn it into television shows.
e. In creating Man, I think God somewhat overestimated his ability.
Jeff O’Neal is the editor of Book Riot. Follow him on Twitter: @readingape