When I was younger, people told me that I should be a writer because I was a good speller. Today, I laugh at that. I know so many amazing storytellers who can't spell to save their lives. And you know what? We've got spellcheck. You don't need to be a great speller to write a great story.
The same could be said about grammar. Don't know an Oxford comma from a comma splice? That shouldn't keep you from writing the next Great American Novel.
For more thoughts on grammar, read the sage advice of my amazing editor, Jane MacKay.
Grammar Tips by Jane MacKay
People seem to use the word “grammar” very loosely, as a sort of all-encompassing term covering anything to do with language and how it’s used, but grammar refers specifically to “the system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language [and] the system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.). In basic terms, the rules and guidelines of grammar govern how words and punctuation are used in relation to each other to convey a desired meaning. Of course, that’s still a very broad category.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my years of copy editing is that few of the rules of grammar are hard-and-fast rules. There are some that must be followed or you risk looking uneducated or, worse, causing misunderstanding -- e.g., “you’re” means “you are” and “your” means “belonging to you” – but many others are open to interpretation, such as comma placement, hyphen usage, splitting an infinitive (e.g., “to go boldly” vs. “to boldly go”), or that persistent Thistlebottomism, ending a sentence with a preposition (up with which I will put).
How to improve your understanding and knowledge of grammar?
Honestly, some people’s brains just don’t work that way and no matter how hard they try, the rules of grammar just aren’t going to stick in their head. And that’s fine. Use your creative talent to create and do your best during the revision and editing phases to make your writing as clean as possible. Then ask a grammar-adept friend, fellow writer, family member to correct errors they find, and then, if possible, hire a copy editor to polish and put the professional touch on your manuscript.
A few tips for becoming more grammar adept:
1. Pay close attention to the corrections made by your editor, and ask for explanation if you don’t understand why a certain change was made. If the editor makes a particular type of correction over and over again, make a note of that error (with before and after examples) and keep it where you can easily refer to it so you don’t keep making the same mistake.
2. Read high-quality and well-edited writing. Pay close attention when reading. Osmosis is an underrated method for improving the quality of your writing. It obviously works negatively – we all absorb poor habits of speech and writing from what we encounter every day – but it can also be a powerful positive influence.
3. Study grammatical rules and guidelines in bite-sized pieces. Don’t overwhelm yourself. The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) website has a well-organized section of explanations and examples. Search around and find a resource that works for you. (Hint: a reference librarian can point you in the right direction.)
4. Know your weaknesses. Triple check those things when you’re revising and editing your work. Use reference books, reputable online reference materials, ask a reference librarian for help.
5. Study a foreign language. I gained most of my formal knowledge of grammar from studying German for nine years.
Thanks, Jane! You can contact Jane directly, visit her website, or find her on Facebook to learn more about the world of an editor.
More grammar tips soon.
In the meantime, if you have a comment or question for Jane, share it below.