Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Boring Bits

By Greg Hardin
Three years ago I finally learned the difference between “its” and it’s”.  For years I labored under the uncertainty of which version to use when I needed a contraction of “it is” or tried to show an object’s possession.  Finally, I just buckled down, dug out a grammar book and memorized the rule.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I stumbled upon a great graphic from theoatmeal.com discussing apostrophes, and one of the subtopics was where to use an apostrophe with “it” and “s”.  BUT, after learning that elusive grammar wisdom, I did dig into some old (and not-so-old) grammar books in an effort to repair the potholes of my grammatical past.

            It was around the time I was switching careers from being a photographer to being an English teacher. I realized if I was going to teach writing to students, I probably should understand it more. I have not regretted that decision even once, and I wonder why I didn’t make more of an effort before.
            Most adults know how to write.  We’ve written so much over the years that the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and structure are inhumed deep in our subconscious and only accessed by sections of our brain we’re not even aware work. If asked to diagram a sentence, most adults would balk.  If asked what the rules for comma usage are, most of my friends would change the conversation.  And that’s fine.  Because somehow all of that previous knowledge and practice and schooling churns somewhere deep inside and bubbles up when we need it to, inserting commas in the right places and telling us where to put the noun and verb, and when to start a new paragraph.  And it works.  Except when it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t work, most people don’t notice; they don’t realize there has been a communication error.  But it happens a lot more than it should. Lynne Truss wrote a book titled Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It is a fantastic book on grammar and the loss of common rules in civilized society. The title refers to the old joke about the panda and its definition from the dictionary.  A mere comma determines whether a panda eats plant material, or goes on a killing spree after meals. Her book gives concrete examples of the public misusage of punctuation, often to humorous affect. It also helps fix misconceptions derived from years of “sort-of-knowing” the basic rules for grammar.

            All would-be writers should read books like Ms. Truss’s. If you’re a writer, you need to know how to write.  We need to know the rules, especially if we’re going to hold ourselves up as even partially knowledgeable of our craft. A musician knows his scales and chords and practices those boring building blocks of his profession so he can rock out when he’s performing something much more interesting. As a writer you need to practice and learn the boring bits – the foundational stuff.  I always tell my students, “learn the rules, so you know when to break them.”

            Find a book on grammar and give it a read through.  Do it once a year to refresh. Find some basic lessons on writing structure and review.  You might find yourself saying something like, “oh that’s a dangling modifier.” Sure, a lot of you writers already know all of this – you’re already experts.  Good.  I’m proud of you, for those of you for who that’s true.  Most of us still rely on those ingrained rules that we don’t really understand.  Acquire understanding.  Constantly research your craft, not just the subject of your craft.

            While writing this, I looked up the definition of “balk” just to make sure I was using it correctly. (I was, and my ego rejoiced.) We should double-check ourselves all the time, and not just for ego-stroking. Am I using this comma correctly? Where does the apostrophe go? Do some research, look things up, admit you don’t know everything about the rulebook of English. At least, admit it to yourself. Then, you can maintain the appearance of English know-it-all to everyone else.

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