Tag Archives: grammar

Can grammar be glamourous?

Phil: Grammar. It’s dull, boring and essential.

Worse, it’s endlessly argued over by very dull and boring people who really need to get out more and take up and exciting hobby, like bus spotting.

You find them haunting on-line discussions, pouncing on minor infractions in someones posting, promptly dragging themselves up to their full height to denounce the criminal. Never mind the subject under discussion, they have nothing to add to this, no, all they want to do is show their superiority handling a preposition.

Sadly, grammar does matter when you are writing, which is why I pitched up to see David Crystal : Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar a couple of weeks ago.

David is described as ” the most famous name in English linguistics” although I’m not sure how much competition there is for that particular accolade. What I do know is he is marvelously entertaining.

Basically, grammar is all about ensuring your audience can understand you. And English is an evolving language. Things change over time and some of the rules laid down many years ago were arbitrary.

A good case is the Oxford comma.

Were I to be described by Cambridge University Press, I would be tall, dark and handsome.

Oxford University Press would say, tall, dark, and handsome.

See the extra comma before the and? Should it be there or not? I’m in the Cambridge camp here having been taught that you don’t comma before an and in a list. It’s the sort of thing that keeps grammar Nazis entertained for hours.

And what about starting a sentence with a proposition (e.g And)?

This rule dates back to the 19th Century when teachers decided children were doing it too often – so banned them from doing it at all. Sorry, who voted them in for the job? Perhaps they should be asked if it’s wrong, does that mean children should be exposed to Shakespeare, who writes, “And then it started like a guilty thing.in Hamlet. Yes Hamlet, that dreary play where everyone ends up dead. Basically, if starting sentences with And is A. Bad. Thing. Then the Bard can come off the syllabus.

For a potentially dull topic, this was a fun hour.  The Q&A at the end was especially entertaining as David punctured the balloons of some questioners who obviously had specific grammar crimes that really bothered them. A quick explanation of how each came about soon explained why this stuff isn’t life and death.

Me, I took away the knowledge that there are very few hard and fast rules. If the reader understands what you are saying, that’s all that matters. We’re writing a story, not a university text. Even if we were, would it be for Oxford or Cambridge? FIGHT!

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I don’t know what a gerund is. And I don’t care.

Luke as punctuationA gerund is a noun made from a verb by adding “-ing”.

Phil: A new test has been introduced this week for children. It examines the more ‘technical’ aspects of English – such as grammar, punctuation and spelling and is assessed via an externally marked test.

According to the Department for Education, the introduction of this new test reflects the Government’s beliefs that children should have mastered these important aspects of English by the time they leave primary school, and that appropriate recognition should be given to good use of English throughout their schooling.

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove is frothing with excitement at this, but then he believes that Queen Victoria is still on the throne and that geography lessons need to remind everyone that the most countries on the globe should be coloured in pink.

Several arty types like Michael Rosen think he is wrong.

I think I’m inclined to agree with them. Most of my work involves writing, the pinnacle of my education career was an O Level grade B in English and yet I still only managed to score 5/10 in the BBC Grammar Quiz.

Does knowing the full technical aspect of the language make it easier to write clearly? I suspect not. The title of this post involves starting a sentence with a conjunction – a crime that would see my work marked with a big red circle and the words, “See me” appended to the bottom in teachers sternest handwriting.  Did you understand it? Almost certainly.

This isn’t to say that I feel you can completely throw out the rule book. I still get annoyed when sub-editing letters were the writer uses a lower-case “i” when they should use “I” or doesn’t understand that commas and apostrophes are not the same thing. Mostly I’m angry because the writers come from an era when teaching involved the same type of tests that are now being introduced. My suspicion is that they are the same people bashing youngsters for not being able to write.

Language should not get in the way of reading so I’d argue that the subject, or story, is more important than the correct technical English. Let’s encourage children to read widely and fire their creativity thinking. The best-selling authors out there aren’t known for the greatest quality writing but they grab the reader with the story which is a far more impressive skill.

How many people finish a book and say, “Well, the story was dull, the characters one-dimensional but the author really knows how to work a semi-colon.” ?

More to the point, IF we must drill the full set of technical rules into children, please can we lock all the people who claim to care passionately about the subject in a room and only start testing when they have all agreed on all the rules. That should keep them out of our hair for a while!

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Grammar Nazi vandalism

Phil: At the moment I’m reading Anthony McReavy’s book on the life and times of Frank Hornby – “The Toy Story“. Bought from a charity shop, the volume had originally be owned by the Worcestershire County Library service. Despite being published in 2002, this hardback volume in excellent condition has been sold out of service ten years later. Thanks to years of working with people from this service, I know libraries aren’t just about books,  but books lasting less than a decade in the stocks despite being just as relevant as when they were published saddens me a little.

Not as much as what I find inside the book.

Someone has taken it upon themselves to “correct” the text in pencil. You can’t go more than half a dozen pages without finding this amateur editors efforts defacing the text.

Why? Who on earth cares? Did they think that somehow if they scribbled in the book, all the copies would magically “correct” themselves?

The problem is that every time I hit an alteration, I find myself required to stop and decide if “correction” is correct. The flow of the text is lost. Each pencil mark is a set of traffic lights along the highway of knowledge.

Have you ever augmented a published book in pencil? I’m really fascinated to know more. If only the “editor” had included their address at the front, perhaps on the page that lists copyright and publisher, I could have gone along and asked them.

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Thinking in writing

Mmmmmmm, cupcake. Yummy.Candice :  In the midst of our deep and meaningful conversation in the pub a few days ago, we came across a stumbling block that we have encountered in our previous writing missions.  How to explain that a character is thinking in what you are writing.

Example 1: No one is going to be doing anything ghostly tonight, she thought, putting her face in her hands

Example 2: …it didn’t seem any different from any other tour, why had he picked it over the multitude of others?

Now in writing the Book, we decided that we would go with the option of putting , ‘character thought’, by these sections.  I have continued that, as you can see, above.  However, in this short story’s case particularly, the character is thinking alot, which kind of drowns the prose with ‘she thought’. So what to do?  One story Phil sent me the character it thinking all the way through so there is no specific reference to this,but with ours it’s told from her point of view but with conversations with other characters and descriptive scenes.

So, what do you do to prevent over ‘thoughting’ the prose but to explain that some of it is going on in their head?

Can I just point out, we’ve both got an ‘O’ Level in English Language, but that was a lonnnnnngggggg time ago!

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