I Heart Grammar!

by limebirdwriters

Over the years and through studying English Language and Linguistics at University, it has become more and more apparent to me that grammar is a fickle yet wonderful thing. Did you know for example, there are around 10 different types of grammar? I had to dig out my old linguistics books to find these, but here we are – Comparative, Generative, Mental, Pedagogical, Performance, Reference, Theoretical, Traditional, Transformational and Universal.  (If you’re interested, I can add the meanings of these, but I didn’t want to bore anyone!)

Then we get into the nitty gritty, the things that we ‘should’ know:

Active Voice Passive Voice, Adjectives, Adverbs, Clauses, Complex Sentences, Compound Sentences, Conjunctions, Declarative Sentences *takes deep breath* Dependent Clauses, Direct Objects,  Exclamatory Sentences, Imperative Sentences. Ok, that’ll do. I’m sure I’ve lost you by now.  There are so many rules and regulations and if we all sat there fretting about each one, we would never get anything done.

grammar

Although there are a lot of complex rules which we could be forgiven for not getting quite right, I still see pieces of work which make my want to cry with their abuse of simple homophones like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. However, I’ve seen a lot of grammar nerds (yes, I know I am one too) getting really vexed about certain rules that I don’t think are as important any more. Here are some examples:

Passive Voice

I get shouted at on a daily basis by Word (we have disagreements a LOT), for using passive voice. This is a verb form which is used to show that the grammatical subject is the object of the action. So for example:

WRONG: The chocolate was eaten by Beth and CORRECT: Beth ate the chocolate

Although both of these sentences are a true fact (you shouldn’t leave chocolate around when I’m there), I don’t have a problem with the former. I would say that people are being pernickety as it’s not really a grammatical error. I think it’s more that this type of writing CAN be avoided and re-worded. However, so long as it still makes sense, I don’t have a problem with it.

Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

If you don’t break this rules every now and again, you’re headed for some strange sounding questions. Sometimes it simply makes sense to end some sentences with prepositions.

So, for example – “ Who are you waiting for?” instead of “ For who(m) are you waiting?” it just sounds odd.

Splitting Infinitives

How many times have you heard people say ‘don’t split your infinitives’, well this is another one that I think isn’t always true anymore. What I mean by a split infinitive, is when you have an adverb between both parts of the infinitive. The most famous example of this is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” This is a split infinitive because ‘boldly’ splits the adverb ‘to go’.

However, in most cases you do not need to split the infinitive and it works better, but this isn’t a rule which always needs to be adhered to. Just go with what fits.

While I’m here though, there is one rule that you should obey, or I will poke you in the eye:

One of my biggest pet peeves is the people not using models properly. For example, using ‘would of’, ‘could of’ etc instead of ‘would have’ or ‘could have’.  I can see how it happens in speech sometimes, as it flows over, but when written just completely grates on me. ‘I could care less’ is another one, instead of ‘I couldn’t care less’ *shakes head*

Honestly I could go on, but you would all be banging your heads against the screen, as I’m aware grammar isn’t the most exciting topic. So, what grammar rules do you think we can break? Also, if you do break them, does it make you a bad writer? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

Anyways, I will leave you with this humourous grammar poem! (Not written by me, I couldn’t find the author) Enjoy!

Punctuation Marks

The period is a busy man.
A small round traffic cop.
He blocks the helter-skelter words
And brings them to a stop.

The question mark’s a tiny girl,
She’s small but very wise;
She asks too many questions
For a person of her size.

Of all the punctuation folk,
I like the comma best.
For when I’m getting out of breath
He lets me take a rest.

Quotation marks are curious.
When friendly talk begins
You’ll always find these little marks
Are busy listening in.

The exclamation mark’s an elf,
Who is easily excited.
When children laugh or cry or scream
It’s then he’s most delighted.

Whenever you come to the end of a thought,
You sign it off with a polka dot.

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42 Comments to “I Heart Grammar!”

  1. Really nice post, Beth, informative and entertaining. As you say, to a lot of people grammar is a snore, but to writers – who want to be taken seriously – it’s a vital part of the craft. You wouldn’t buy a house that had been built with bent walls and a leaky roof, but too many “writers” are trying to sell their (no, not “they’re”!) work without having paid enough attention to the nuts and bolts of the job. It’s all well and good fretting over character, plot and structure, but however good the story, it’s always going to need improvement if the author doesn’t study the basics of English.

    The other thing is where rules crossover to style. I agree that to use the passive is fine, it’s not “bad”, but it IS bad STYLE to OVERUSE it, like when someone needlessly writes words in block caps to emphasise a point 🙂

    Splitting the infinitive is another good one: generally thought to be very bad 50 years ago, now no one but the purist is really bothered; it’s become accepted and is used by the majority of native English speakers, so it can’t be “wrong”.

    My favourite is the subjunctive in second conditionals: In 1981 the car maker Volkswagon ran an ad campaign with the strapline: “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Golf”. This had the grammar police up in arms because it should have been “… WERE as reliable…” but because “everything” normally takes a singluar verb, it is an easy mistake to make. I’ve often wondered if it would be worth starting an SOS campaign – “Save Our Subjunctive” – but I already have enough people laughing at me, so there’s (no, not “theirs”!) no need… yet.

    All the best and keep up the great work!

    • Hi Chris,
      Thank you, you’re too kind! 🙂 Very true, knowing your onions is very important if you want to hone your craft. For example, a contraction could be the difference between a fast paced scene or a clumsy one. Ah yes, that I agree with. The same with any style I think. I know, that’s SO annoying.

      My point exactly! A great example of how language has well and truly changed over the years.
      Haha, ah yes I can see why the grammar police were up in arms about that. However, ‘were’ still doesn’t seem to fit into the strapline. Even though grammatical incorrect, I can see why Golf went with ‘was’, although neither really sound quite right. Well, you go right ahead, we’ll have your back!

      Thank you, and you!

  2. True..
    Of all the punctuation folk,
    I like the comma best.
    For when I’m getting out of breath
    He lets me take a rest.

  3. Once in a while I had a friend read something I wrote. I used to write more dialogue in a story. The friend reader would correct the grammar in the character’s dialogue. No amount of explaining on my part about why I wrote that way made a difference in that person’s view of “my grammar.” She walked away shaking her head. last year I had a a proof reader critique a manuscript and had notes to add question marks in some dialogue passages. I didn’t argue about it, but that had me looking up “question mark” usage. I was never immune from making errors – especially in first drafts. But, I’ve been better since having the green underlining of the msword.doc grammar feedback on the screen.

    Another time I sent off a manuscript to a prospective agent. I received a reply with the advice to acquire a copy of the Chicago Tribune Style Guide. So I set off to Barnes & Noble to get a copy. I found it was priced at near or over $100. That ended that search. I went back to my short [ 71 pages ] 1964 paperback “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr, & E.B. White. These things can drive one batty if one worries about it so much. And I think your post is an important one as this issue is that these basics seem a reason for agents’ readers and editor’s screeners to toss anything that screams “grammatical errors” and otherwise “not correct use” of the language. I have no doubt that in this editorial atmosphere, that Samuel Clemens [ Mark Twain ] and James Joyce would never be published. It’d be interesting, perhappens, that if one could once’st do it, see if an entire book’s pages coulds best be printed with the WORD.doc lines, underlined all in green and red wrigglery underlines, showin’ the errors for all to read as they were laid down all fresh like and that that were the writer’s intent right off.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think, especially nowadays, a lot of grammar ‘rules’ are down to personal preference. Like you said, you wanted the dialogue written that way, so why can’t you? As long as it’s not a blatant disregard of how our language works, I think there is a lot of leeway.

      What did they mean regarding questions marks? That you had omitted them when they were necessary, or that you just needed more of them? Ah yes, I am familiar with the green squiggle. It is currently telling me to omit the question mark after ‘them’ and it’s also telling me not to contract ‘it’s’. Hence why we fall out a lot of the time (Myself and MSWord).

      Oh blimey, that’s expensive. Unfortunately though, many different places will have their own style guides which you have to adhere to. The one that I normally refer to is the Guardian Style Guide http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide (only relevant in the UK).
      What a great example, you have hit the nail on the head there. I wonder how many books would be littered with red and green squiggles. I always write my comments in word, not straight into the comment box, as I find it much easier to spot any potential errors. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Peter Elbow once said, “Grammar is glamour”.

    The anti-passive-voice witch hunt began when people started getting really sick of convoluted Victorian verbiage and reached its full momentum when Hemingway became popular and everybody else tried to imitate him.

    I can see their point, though I think the opposite extreme is just as annoying, only shorter. I was never wild about Hemingway precisely because he pulls his sentences so tight. Excessive terseness can be painful to read too.

    C.S. Lewis used the passive voice all the damn time and none of his books are the least bit dull.

  5. Of course I forgot something:

    Grammar is best learned through context, by reading. I learned most of what I know before I ever entered school, which was good, because the way grammar was taught in my school was boring to the point of agony. School taught me to hate the books it forced me to read and to hate diagramming sentences. Good thing I had access to books before entering school and I could read other books that weren’t assigned, or I would hate reading to this day.

    There is a serious problem with the way grammar is taught, particularly in American schools, and Elbow talks about it in his book. (the quote is from _Writing with Power_).

    • Oh did it? I didn’t know that, well I’m learning lots of things today!

      I have to say I’m also not a massive fan of ol’ Hemingway. Something about his writing just didn’t gel with me, maybe that’s it! Exactly… I am a big backer of the passive voice! Just you try and stop me! 😛

      Regarding how you learn grammar, yes I agree. In English schools, we don’t learn any grammar. We are pretty much given “ Nouns are person place or thing, verbs are doing words and adjectives are describing words.” I’m not even joking, that’s about it. When I went to University, the lecturer had to do classes to teach the English native speakers about grammar. Those who were foreign students (with English as their second language) laughed thinking that she was joking. Unfortunately she wasn’t!

      I definitely think that we should be taught grammar ( at least in its basic form) from a young age, maybe we should start a campaign!

  6. Have you ever read any of Patricia T. O’Conner’s books? She wrote the “Woe Is I” series and “Words Fail Me”. I listen to her once a month on NPR – she’s called “the word maven” and it’s so interesting to hear how words/phrases came to be, what’s acceptable in grammar and punctuation, etc.

    I do break grammar rules occasionally in my writing when the need calls for it, like you talk about with ending sentences with prepositions. I sure can’t have a street tough saying, “For whom is that bullet intended?” LOL 😀

    Unfortunately even narratives can sound a bit stiff and uppity sometimes if we follow the rules of grammar closely, so again I think it’s all according to the piece of writing.

    Punctuation is a sore spot with me. The overuse/misuse of commas, complete misuse of apostrophes, etc. drive me CRAZY. I actually saw an ad saying “Toy’s for sale”. :<O I don't understand what's so difficult about using correct punctuation!

    • Hi Raisingdaisy,

      No, I can’t say I have actually! Would you say that they are worth reading??

      My point exactly, sometimes, you just have to finish a sentence with a preposition, otherwise, like you have pointed out, it has strange results!

      Misuse of apostrophes frustrates me as well. However, I have to say I am guilty of overuse of commas, it’s a disease! Oh gosh, that’s ridiculous! Silly people.. don’t put an apostrophe on a plural, unless it is plural and possessive, then it’s after the s! Duh! *bangs head*

  7. This is a subject close to my hard, and although I try not to correct my friends’ mistakes in texts, emails and Facebook posts, incorrect use of apostrophes, commas and homophones, it also irks me a great deal. I must admit that I wouldn’t really think about the passive voice when constructing a sentence, but I will now!

    • Limebirdcharlotte, I honestly can’t resist myself but I have to do this… *heart , OK glad I’ve got that outta the way. Yes, I’m the same really, it irks me most of the time!

      Ohh, I’m glad I got you thinking, me and the passive voice are like this – *crosses fingers*

      • I KNEW that I’d get something wrong, clearly I didn’t look at that close enough *hides in shame*. Someone should do an article on proofreading (not me, clearly)!

      • Hahahaha! Well you sit hiding in shame thinking about what you’ve done until I instruct you otherwise! 😉

  8. Great post (from one grammar lover to another)–I know that wasn’t a complete sentence, by the way!

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the passive voice being fine as long as it is simply peppered in with the active voice. Variety is the spice of life and prose.

    I thought I knew grammar pretty well and then audited a college Expository Writing course. I still have much to learn about the mysteries of grammar, but I feel it is important to abide by the basic rules. If you write in a way that shows you know your grammar “stuff,” it’s fine to violate the rules because the reader knows you meant to (rather than goofed up).

    I love your sense of humor in this post. The post reminds me of one of my favorite grammar reads, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss. 🙂

    • Hi Lorna,

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂 Haha, don’t you worry, I’ll only judge you a little bit! 😉

      Ohh I love that quote – “variety is the spice and life of prose”, I’m keeping that in my head! Well, I also thought I had quite a good grip on it until going to University. We had to do loads of grammar and I did find myself thinking ‘what is that?!’, so I can empathise!

      Aw thank you! What a great compliment, I love that book!

  9. Grammar and punctuation are my biggest problems when it comes to writing anything…
    I think to a certain extent its something that people need a certain aptitude for.Part of the problem is not having a solid grounding in basic grammar/punctuation,its surprising just how many people don’t…
    Until your solid on the basics the rest just seems overly complicated, most of the time i have to be content with people just simply understanding what i’ve said…

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment and welcome to Limebird! Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that grammar and punctuation are giving you a hard time! I definitely think that it’s something that you kind of have to have inside you to start with, otherwise it is very hard to get to grips with.

      What I do most of the time, is read things out loud. That way I can get a better grasp on where the commas and full stops should go. Might not work for everyone, but it’s got me this far! 🙂

  10. “I get shouted at […] by Word […] for using passive voice.”

    ;P

    Here’s some nice history about ending sentences with prepositions. Bascially, some guy just made up that rule one day and … on … it caught.

  11. Okay first off…Beth should have SHARED the chocolate!!

    My worst thing is the comma splice. I always just keep going when I should have stopped at the comma and started anew.

    You picked one of my biggest pet peeves with the ‘would of’ and ‘could of’. I think it comes from the ‘would’ve’ and ‘could’ve’ in speech, and it’s said so much that it sounds like “of”, but really…’could of’ just doesn’t make any sense!!

    What can we get away with? I guess that depends on your writing style. If you’re writing in a casual, laid back voice, you can probably get away with a lot more than if you have a more poignant or professional voice. Also, I think almost anything goes when you put those quote marks up. The character uses what he/she uses. (see Huck Finn).

    Great post Beth!

    • Shared.. chocolate..?! Are you mad!

      Oh no, I am a terrible over user of the comma splice. I use them WAY too much.

      Yes definitely, it really bugs me too. Like I said, I don’t mind it so much in speech, but written.. well that’s just unacceptable!

      Good point, it definitely depends on the style. Anyway, thanks for your comment LimebirdRaven! 🙂

  12. Beth:
    To answer your question on the “question mark issue in dialogue,” I had not used question mark in a dialogue sentence, and the proof reader noted that in his critique sheet. I have a habit of not using those marks. And, that reminds me. He said that I needed an exclamation mark in one sentence also, where I had not used one. One of my characters was yelling something, so I understood the proofreader’s point. But I have a lot of characters raising their voices. The exclamation marks would be everywhere. I just think the question marks and exclamation marks are rather silly sometimes. ….. mostly always.

  13. There’s a funny American joke about grammar. I’m sure you could substitute Cambridge or Oxford to similar effect.

    A new student at Harvard University approaches an upperclassman and asks, “Where’s the library at?” To which the upperclassman looks down his nose and says, “At Harvard, we do not end sentences with prepositions.” To which the new student replies, “Okay, where’s the library at a*****le?”

    (For the record, I learned this one from my graduate advisor who received his PhD from Harvard.)

    Good authors can get away with breaking the rules. But the key is understanding the rules first in order to break them effectively. So I would recommend investing in a good grammar guide or taking a course if it’s really a problem for someone. The reality is agents and editors are not going to overlook “sloppy” grammar in a manuscript, no matter how good the story is. And even if someone e-publishes, will readers recommend the book or buy a second one if they’re tripping over grammatical errors on every page?

    And, yes, Word is often worthless for spelling and grammar! I’m sorry, Word, but my use of contraction “it’s” is correct – not your possessive “its!”

    • Haha, I like that joke!

      That is a very good point, I think you do still have to have a basic understanding of the rules. Not simply breaking them out of ignorance.

      I know! We wouldn’t get very far if we took everything that Word said as truth! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  14. Great post! I’ve forgotten anything I ever learned in school, *tongue in cheek* it was such a LONG time ago… I love to find posts that help me in learning about grammar, the problem is knowing which ones are accurate!

  15. I think I tend to make grammar mistakes often; I write like I talk. I don’t notice many mistakes unless they’re blatant. So, unless they’re happening often and obvious even to someone like me, I don’t think the writing is ‘bad’. However, if the story is amazing, I think grammar can be overlooked sometimes. I have a question for you, too. What about in the dialogue? Does it grate on you just as much for a character to talk with the problems you mentioned? I think it makes the talk more believable and more fun to write. Well, it makes it easier for me to write too. I don’t get as fearful. I always worry about making mistakes, so in that area I can put worry aside and just get lost in what they say. (Not that I don’t get lost anyway when I’m doing well. :])

    • I like when characters speak in their own incorrect grammar / dialect too. It makes them sound more real. Stephen King is really great about that (my husband is going to divorce me the next time I say “but Stephen King said this… but Stephen King did that…” LOL)

    • Hi Amber,

      Thanks for commenting. I think the main problem is if people make the mistakes and they don’t understand that it’s incorrect.

      Oh no, I think it’s a different story with a character, if it is done deliberately! I don’t have a problem with that, it’s more if people are always writing ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ etc and if you pointed it out, they wouldn’t realise they had made a mistake!

  16. I loved this post… but would have liked more details to be honest. I grew up in the “grammar isn’t important” school of schooling. Thankfully, I took Latin and got some exposure.

    I agree with you about the passive voice thing. Imagine several pages going on as follows:

    We did this. We did that. We did the next thing. Then, we did another thing. We did this thing…

    This is effectively an example of writing from a scientific paper I was involved with. The grad student in charge refused to change around any of the sentences declaring, “No passive voice for me!” Really, would it have been so terrible to say something like, “The data was collected at night by radio?” (Did I get that right, question mark inside the quote?)

    My understanding of passive voice is that it’s not to be overused, but used to add variety and keep us from getting bored to death. Oh, and from that paper, I learned that overusing one sentence structure makes it easy to accidentally skip a line or go back to the start of the same one.

    I would also add that sometimes using passive voice instead of reworking into active voice is important for keeping the focus in the right place. An example:

    Joe was killed by person or persons unknown. (passive)
    An unknown person or persons killed Joe. (active)

    In the active voice, the subject isn’t even known (and who really is concerned with that part except the police, aren’t we all more concerned about poor Joe!).

    I wish I’d had more grammar as a kid. Feel free to post more. I’d love to finally understand the gerund and gerundive (or maybe that’s just a Latin thing?).

    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for commenting! Ah yes, I probably could go on about grammar for ages, but I think that the majority of our readers would want to tape my mouth up after a while!

      Exactly! Obviously I’m not insinuating in any way shape of form that you should always use passive voice, but I don’t think that active is always the way to go! Oh gosh that must have been dull, I honestly don’t see anything wrong with that sentence! Yes, question mark inside the quote! 🙂

      Ah the gerund and gerundive, now we’re getting into the good stuff! In English it’s using a verb (with an –ing on the end) as an noun. So for example – “Eating lots of chocolate is fun.” Obviously there’s a lot more to it, but that’s a basic version.

      However in Latin, it’s only used with the accusative, genitive, dative and ablative forms (I had to double check the last three ones here!) So, for example when the –ns ending is swapped with –ndus.

      Oh no, poor Joe! Haha. Yes, I definitely agree that variety is the spice of life! I think I would bore everyone to tears if I did too much grammar, but feel free to drop me an email (in the Contact section) if you have any grammar related questions! 🙂

  17. When people type “would of” instead of “would have” I start getting a little crazy feeling on the inside too.

    On my grandmother used to get onto me all the time for was ending a sentence with the word “at”. “Where are you at?” She would beat everyone down with her gaze of doom until the sentence is modified to “Where are you?”

    I admit I’m pretty terrible with most grammar rules, though so when my grandma gives me “the look”, I know to obey!

  18. I admit, as a novice, amateur, unpublished writer, I don’t often follow the rules. It’s mainly because I don’t remember all the rules from high school English classes and the one semester of creative writing from my local community college (yes, a community college – don’t judge me . . . until you look in my wallet!). I have deemed myself with the title “Master of the Superflous Comma”, meaning, yes, I use too many damn commas unnecessarily.

    But, I personally don’t think breaking the rules makes me a bad writer, per se. I mean, no, you probably wouldn’t want to fleece any of my writings and plagiarise/plagiarize me for anything bearing a grade in punctuation at your school. However, as an artist – a painter- (and thinking with the idea/impression that fictional prose is an art form) I break rules all the time. Or, actually, I should say, I just tossed the rulebook out the window and I let the canvas (or, if I’m writing, the page) speak. I don’t limit myself. And, I think that when you try to fit yourself as a writer into the Harbrace box, you lose a certain amount of creativity. It’s the most gratifying way to write or paint, honestly. The rules are guidelines, but not like “nun with a knuckle-bashing ruler” strict.

    Granted, there are some rules you cannot get away from. Mark my words. When the first piece of writing is published that happens to be written in “LEET speak” (i.e. “hw r u? im fyne. im l33t. wach me brake evry rule n the book), I will personally smack the author, editor and publisher!

    Anyway, great post!

    • Hi Robert,

      If I’m honest, I didn’t learn all that much about grammar about school. They don’t really teach any here in the UK. However, I taught myself most of it! Oh gosh, I’m the same. I overuse commas way too much. Not sure why, but I always have!
      Very true, what a great outlook onto it! Obviously some rules are there to be broken, as long as you have the basics there and it’s done deliberately! 🙂

      Haha, yes let me know if you see that and I will join you in the smacking!

      Thank you and thanks for your comment!

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