Good Grammar

I’m the product of my education, grammatically speaking. For me, like manywho were educated after slate and chalk became unfashionable, as far as English grammar was concerned, a conjunction was a planetary event occasionally mentioned in the astrology column, and a split infinitive was something to do with Star Trek. I think Scottie used one to power up the warp drive in series three. Oncethe basics of doing, naming and describing words had been covered, my high school English classes were devoted to over-analysing and over-acting Shakespeare. Along the way we wrote some short stories and somehow picked up the grammatical rules we needed in order to be understood.

This system developed in the progressive atmosphere of the swingin’ sixties. Educators who had suffered through the drumming of archaic rules into their heads as children, used the spirit of the times to re-imagine the school system. Creative writing henceforth became the tool through which grammar was to be learnt, providing a more organic path to English comprehension. The end result was a succession of highly imaginative and innovative generations who possessed only a basic knowledge of how the language they used everyday actually worked.

For the most part, this wasn’t a problem. When writing essays for example, I knew whatfelt right and what felt wrong. I largely wrote within grammatical conventions, even if I had no idea exactly what they were. This was all well and good, until I came to something more complex, such as when to use a semicolon or the word ‘whom’. At these points I tended to just hazard an educated guess, kind of like a water-diviner twirling bent coathangers in his hands. This meant that when my essays were returned, there was invariably a liberal dashing of red ink on them. Whenever my grammatical intuition failed me like this, I simply put itdown to a form of witchcraft. A magic known to those rote educated soothsayers, but heldback from the uninitiated.

For most students, this mystery didn’t really seem to matter. We picked up enough to get us through our working life, and, as computer spelling and grammar checkers began to develop, we could, by-and-large, get away with it. Even for would-be writers, who needed to meet formal grammatical conventions for publication, there existed the promise of specialised persons, well versed in the witchcraft. These people were given the name‘editors’ and were employed by publishers especially for the task. They would correct all the little errors for us, turn ‘who’ into ‘whom’ like Jesus turning water to wine and leave us free to concentrate on the creative, self expression that we were born for.

This seemed like a fantastic deal and so long as it meant that I’d never have to learn what a subjunctive mood was, I was happy to leave the secret arts to them. Except now, the writing market is shifting. Less money is available for print publications and more writing is going straight up online. Writers are increasingly faced with the need to edit their own work and an educated guess will no longer do. We need to learn the witchcraft.

‘Why worry about it?’ You might ask. Especially if all you’re freinds cant spell or do grammer good either? Actually, as readers, we are used to the high standards set by the publishing industry and most people do recognise bad grammar even if they can’t quite pinpoint why it’s bad. For the emerging writer, whether fresh faced Gen-Y or a late boomer,day-to-day language skills often aren’t enough to meet these standards. Awkward syntax, word confusions and bad grammar all affect the ease with which sentences are read and can make the meaning of the author’s statement hard to decipher. Substandard grammar isnaturally presumed to be a reflection of the quality of the actual prose.

The truth is we do judge a book by its cover. For authors sending off their work, sloppy writing can let down solid content, as commissioning editors often won’t persevere with it. For print manuscripts, a first page full of grammatical errors will ensure the reader never gets to the second. Even if you are lucky enough to make it through the slush pile, if it will cost more to edit your manuscript than the projected profit margin allows, even with glaring genius, your manuscript may be simply passed over.

On the web, the first paragraph or sentence has the same effect. The importance ofclear writing is arguably even greater online, as you have but seconds to engage thereader as they surf by. What might be fine 4u&ur Facebook frenz, will not suffice for awider readership. What may be quick to write quickly becomes laborious to read. Weare already in a world where tweeters are being quoted in mainstream media as sourcesof opinion and news. Easily read, correctly spelt and punctuated content, even in short, mobile formats, is crucial. In the new world of citizen journalism, clear, concise writing will help set your posts apart and perhaps even help you to reach out to a new audience for your work. Besides which, posts tend to hang around in cyberspace for a long time and it makes sense to ensure that all your writing is of a high standard. Learning formal grammar is the best way to lift your writing up a level.

Penny Johnson, who is an IPEd accredited editor, editing teacher and all-round master of the dark arts, recommends that grammatically-challenged authors familiarise themselves with a variety of texts to help them get started. She suggests that writers may find the literary style of Mark Tredinnick’s The Little GreenGrammar Book quite appealing. Although she warns that its comprehensiveness may seem a bit overwhelming at first. For a more basic introduction, Barbra Dykes’Grammar Made Easy is a good option, as is Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which Penny says is both ‘good for a laugh’ and ‘the only punctuation book to take to bedwith you.’ However, while Truss’s book may be good in the sack, it does lack a little in other departments, such as describing the many style issues that writers will need tobe aware of.

To supplement these basics, Penny recommends The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R.L. Trask, which is full of illuminating examples and explanations that you would actually use day to day. Another popular option, with terrific editing tips, is Editing Made Easy by Melbourne-based journalist Bruce Kaplan. And for a solid, affordable workhorse, the Writers Handbook by Malcolm Beazley and Grahame Marr, also makes an appearance on Penny’s list as a good general grammar and punctuation guide.

Reading just a couple of these books will naturally make your head explode in a confetti of verbs, nouns and adjectives. That’s why enrolling in a course to make up for all those grammar lessons you missed at school is not a bad idea. Having the opportunity to ask lots and lots of questions about nonessential clauses and subordinating conjunctions and why we still need any of them, can be a much more efficient way to absorb and retain information. Short courses are offered through the Society of Editors and by most statewriters’ centres. These can range from single session introductions to six-week-long advanced grammar classes for the intrepid. For those seeking a certificate or diploma qualification, there are also year long courses in professional writing and editing offered atvarious TAFE campuses.

Having been formally initiated into the secret sect of syntax through such a course myself, I now realise just how much time I used to waste trying to get rid of those wavy green lines in my word processing documents. Lines that would endlessly taunt me with their strange magical intonations and fragments that I should consider revising. Recklessly flinging random commas into your sentences in a blind effort to placate these electronic grammar gods is no way to run a professional writing career. Becoming acquainted with formal grammar doesn’t mean that my sentences are now always perfect, but it does mean that I feel confident enough to stand up to my computer from time to time. If I’m breaking the rules, I now at least know how, and I can make my stylistic choices from an informed position.

Immediacy is critical these days and a working knowledge of grammar will both speedup your writing and ensure that what you produce is understood and read as widely as it deserves to be. It will also greatly improve your chances of publication and in the bravenew world of online content, allow you to go boldly – or boldly go – where no writerhas gone before.

This article originally appeared as part of the first Emerging Writers Festival Reader.