by Jillian Avalon
As writing students, we spend a lot of our time in the classroom considering craft and its various elements. These elements range from dialogue and scene to complicated balancing acts like narration and metaphor, and these elements are crucial tools for our writing toolbox. But no toolbox is complete without a hammer, and while it isn’t glamorous or even pleasant, grammar is just as critical an element as any of the others our teachers spend time on. Grammar skills are often more assumed than taught at universities, but not all of us have a sufficient, shiny hammer in our toolboxes.
I recently taught a grammar workshop to my grad student peers and in preparing my materials, I stressed over the lack of shared experience in the subject. We all came to the MFA with various experiences as writers, as students, as people. Some of us studied grammar for an English degree, but others of us don’t have English degrees. Likewise, some of us learned primary school writing when grammar and sentence diagramming were staples; others of us are products of a more liberal approach to the basics. I decided to test my methods on someone who had no knowledge or desire to learn grammar, in hope that teaching her would mean I could reach all comers in a single lunch break: I tried to teach my sister how to diagram.
ME: So here’s your sentence: I love pizza. Let’s start simple. Where’s the verb?
SISTER: (Points to pizza)
Disheartening is the best descriptor. I decided my sister was maybe not the best starting point, as after a brief recap of parts of speech she continued to get them muddled. Thankfully, everyone in my workshop had the base knowledge of grammar required for diagramming. But my attempts to teach my sister did make me think about a question I get frequently as an English teacher: Why do we teach grammar?
I’ve seen other writing students ask this; some of them even teach English, like me. Sometimes it’s diagramming specific, sometimes it really is “Why do we care about grammar?”
We all recognize the importance of grammar as writers, but it can be tempting to shrug it off as unnecessarily hampering, a bar to our creativity, an antiquated set of rules. In some cases, we should feel free to brush off some of the tiny particularities of grammar. Breaking rules of punctuation or capitalization or even agreement can be powerful tools and statements in creative work. Provided, of course, that we do these things purposefully.
Beyond the outwardly obvious pedantic correction of others’ mistakes, understanding grammar makes me a better writer, a better reader, a better communicator, a better scholar, and a better linguist. Grammar isn’t about knowing a set of rules and sticking to them rigidly (although it can involve that), it’s about knowing how people communicate in various registers, recognizing the differences, and adjusting to those differences. It’s about recognizing and adapting to the change of language over time and place. It’s about thinking about the evolution of our words from where they entered our language to how we use them in our own work. While grammar is flexible and can be bent to create endlessly creative sentences, understanding the standards of that grammar bending is essential to clear and effective communication with a reader.
I may not be able to teach my sister the parts of speech in an hour, but I can refine my knowledge of British conversational verb structures to write British characters. Likewise, you may not master commas (really, who has time for all the uses of commas?), but maybe you’ll master the use of commas for subordinate clauses. Yes, there’s a lot of grammar, but if we all take small steps toward learning the basics and build from there, we’ll be better readers, better communicators, and better writers, one comma at a time.
Jillian Avalon is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.