I play piano by ear.
When I took 8 years of lessons, I learned to read the notes but never really grasped how all the marks worked to interpret tempo. So I’d hit right notes with wrong timing. My teacher would say, “Let me show you how that’s supposed to sound.” He’d play the song, but instead of understanding the notation, I simply duplicated what he did.
I’m amazed at musicians who can sit down with an unfamiliar piece of sheet music and produce the song in question. I cannot. They can, because they’ve taken the time to learn the rules of notation: such a mark means a note of this length, those symbols mean a delay of a certain duration between notes, and so on.
This universal method of notation means musicians have a common language. Even if they’ve never heard a piece of music, they can read the notes on the sheet and duplicate the song.
So it is with grammar. Outside of English lessons in school, which many of us brain-dumped as soon as we passed those courses, we all learn to communicate “by ear.” We read something with poor grammar and say, “That sounds weird.” We hear someone speak and cock our heads. “That’s not how anyone says it…”
But this is vague and occasionally unreliable. Learning the rules lets us communicate clear and precise thoughts. Like the old tale about bankers identifying counterfeit money, perhaps the best way to learn to pick out what’s wrong is to study what’s correct, especially in any case where one feels uncertain. Grammar rules are facts (bonus points for a reference to yesterday’s post) worthy of a writer’s research.
However, English is notorious for its abundance of rules and exceptions, so there’s no room in this post for a thorough list. Staying true to verb tense is a frequent enough problem that it will get its own post, even though it falls into this category. Punctuation misuse or lack thereof will also be covered later.
So here are a few other examples of what catches my critical eye:
Misplaced modifiers – Word order can create or prevent confusion in the reader. In my second paragraph I originally wrote “delay between notes of a certain duration.” The delay is between the notes. It is a delay of a certain duration. But as written, this may raise the question, “Duration of notes? Or duration of delay?” I had to move the modifier.
Singular/plural verb matching – What’s the actual subject of the sentence? Many times we look at the noun immediately preceeding the verb. “The fireworks excite me” and “The display of fireworks excites me” are correct, even though “…fireworks excites me” sounds wrong since a plural noun precedes a verb ending in -s.
Sentence fragments – Every sentence consists of a subject and a verb phrase. Sometimes in description, in argument, or in haste, writers forget to include both.
“John turned at the low growl and saw a huge dog. Black and hairy, teeth bared, eyes fixed on the intruder in its home.”
“When you argue using circular logic, you have no case. Because the points you make depend on each other to prove.”
The second “sentence” is the sort I see often. In the first case, words are missing. I know the dog is the subject, but grammar demands the writer say so. In the second case, the problem is an extra word. The unnecessary “because” needs a phrase preceeding it in the same sentence. Taking it out fixes the problem.
When MS Word gives warning of a grammar mistake, wisdom pays attention. And if there’s any doubt, a web search will find numerous resources. Grammar Girl and any Oatmeal lessons are favorites of mine, as they take the time to explain the rules in a sharp and witty delivery. (The Oatmeal pictures and language sometimes get pretty coarse. You have been warned.)
Learning grammar to critique writing improves my own efforts. While I happily accept the title of “Grammar Nazi” at times, I make mistakes too. That’s part of why I go to critique group. No one is perfect.
Also, I use my understanding of grammar to my advantage. Sometimes that sentence fragment with bad grammar communicates exactly what I need in a scene, and I need to feel liberated enough to ignore the judgmental green squiggle of MS Word. (Besides, Word and Apple’s auto-correct love to suggest “it’s” for a non-gender possessive, so what do they know?)
There’s a quote attributed (perhaps in error) to Pablo Picasso that sums up this final point: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Speaking of artistry, tomorrow on this A-Z is all about looking in someone’s writing for the art of fishing. Answering “Will this piece of writing get readers to turn the page?” and explaining why.
(Did you catch the grammar mistake there?)