Joan Didion wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” She’s a grammar corrector for sure. Her knowledge and instincts have served her well.
These days, I’d argue, some people have ditched the piano altogether, opting instead to subscribe to the Outback Steakhouse school of grammar — “no rules, just right.”
Good grammar doesn’t necessarily equate to good writing, and good writing doesn’t require good grammar. I heard these arguments from several of my freshman students over the years who believed that they should receive As on papers that included run-on sentences, buried subjects, convoluted phrasings, etc.
I agree that good grammar doesn’t necessarily make a compelling argument or a page-turner of a story. Still, I didn’t (and don’t) buy my students’ arguments that grammar doesn’t matter. The reason? Every time I spot multiple glaring errors, I stop in my tracks. I wonder why the author didn’t take the time to proofread. I question the author’s attention to detail and credibility.
You’re a Grammar Corrector? How Old School of You.
“Grammar and Latin and calculus and things like that are totally obscure,” a student once told me. “Only really picky people care about those things.”
“I guess you understand grammar because of all the grammar classes you took,” another student once said to me.
I know a dangling modifier when I see one. I know how to use a semicolon. I know when sentences are misordered. It’s easy to assume I must have learned these tricks of the trade in a handy “how to” class.
I took French grammar in college. It’s the only grammar class I ever took. I understand how to write because I read voraciously and write most hours of most days. I know how paragraphs and sentences look. How they’re structured. How to play with words to shift emphasis and meaning. This knowing comes from continual painstaking practice. It didn’t happen overnight. It happened after years of getting more things wrong than right.
And I still miss dangling modifiers some of the time.
Good Grammar Matters … Or Does It?
The idea that grammar and punctuation don’t matter disturbs me. Some time back, I edited an event invitation as a favor for a client, a C level at a tech firm. The invitation read as follows:
original: Our company, along with our suppliers, are excited to partner with you. … Our offices in downtown Denver is located right off the 16th Street Mall.
For clarification, the event was being hosted by the company and its suppliers, and the company has one Denver office where approximately 400 people work.
I suggested the following edits:
edited V1: Our company and our suppliers are excited to partner with you. … Our downtown Denver office is located right off the 16th Street Mall.
edited V2: Our company, along with our suppliers, is excited to partner with you. … Our downtown Denver offices are located right off the 16th Street Mall.
(Rather than sharing a lengthy lesson on the subject/verb correlation issues and edits above, I’ll point you here.)
Without the client’s or my knowledge, the in-house designer rejected V1 and V2 and sent out the original. Why? Because, as the designer argued, she didn’t need feedback from a grammar corrector. In her opinion, the original version looked just fine. And just fine was apparently good enough.
How to Become a Writer, Editor, or Grammar Corrector 101
How can I become a writer or editor?
I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. My answer?
- Recognize that words matter and grammar matters.
- Break grammar rules early and often, as warranted, only after you’ve mastered them.
- Read, write, rinse, and repeat until such time as you can hear words as a melody in your head. Learn to recognize instinctually when words are out of tune. Then do as Joan Didion does. When words are out of tune, tune them.
Fast Wins + Zero Fluff = Game Changer
Get periodic marketing tips and tricks to empower you to eliminate random acts of marketing, improve your marketing aim, and fire on all cylinders. No smoke, mirrors, BS, or fluff. All fast-win informational goodness that you can put into action straightaway. Sign up to get on the list.