How can writers use grammar?

In this blog’s discussions of grammar and usage issues, we’ve looked at a wide variety of areas, including usage conventions, grammatical and punctuation “errors,” the history and evolving nature of the English language, and approaches to understanding its grammar. These considerations are necessarily brief, rather than comprehensive. But the goal has been to provide recommendations on how writers can navigate both the rules and the resources, and to provide strategies and tips for applying it to their own writing. Throughout I’ve stressed that much depends on preferences, is a matter of style – their own, as well as a style imposed upon them—whether from the expectations of Standard English conventions held by an instructor or editor, a publisher or reader.
In these pages, I have recommended a number of writing and grammar books. (See Resources.) Recently came across a grammar book by Kris Spisak, when her novel editing workbook (2020) was referred to me. Spisak published her grammar handbook (2017) to counteract what she calls the “grammatical predicament” in which people are losing jobs or respect because of typos on resumes or gaffs committed on electronic media. Claiming that we are all writers given nature of current communications (emails, texts, posts of social networking), Spisak says that “putting down words skillfully and correctly will take you further,” but we need “reminders of proper English writing rules” (echoing this blog’s points): “Maybe it’s the fluid nature of the language; maybe we’ve never been taught; maybe we just never cared” (11-12). 

Mark S. LeTourneau, author of English Grammar,  a text we’ve referenced before, deals with this topic  “caring” when he considers the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for studying grammar. An extrinsic reason could include it being a requirement for a course of study; for instance, a student preparing to be a teacher having a mandatory grammar course. In understanding the for this curriculum requirement, a student teacher might also develop an intrinsic incentive (6).

Others may be stimulated by interest generated after learning the grammar of a second language. Because they cannot depend on internalized knowledge of the language, these people may turn to English grammar to learn it for its own sake, as may others who like understanding how things work, such as how the system or “logic” of English operates from the inside (LeTourneau 7-8).

Surprisingly, LeTourneau consider the motivation of those wishing to enter the publishing field. Rather, he emphasizes the knowledge of grammar necessary in the study of literature. Here students need the ability to describe the structure of a sentence in a play, poem, story, or essay; moreover, grammatical terminology is necessary for comparing the styles of “unlike” authors like Hemingway and Faulkner, or for understanding the complexity of styles of a more remote author or era, such as Richard Hooker of the Elizabethan period (7).

Using grammar for writing vs. literature

As discussed in the previous blog presenting an overview of the history of grammar instruction, there is no agreement on the method of studying grammar, much less on its effectiveness of learning grammar, especially when it comes to improving writing.

Writers might not need to know grammar. As a matter of fact, LeTourneau points out that it is possible to revise or edit a sentence without describing what you have done in grammatical terms.”  In writing workshops and editing practices, we call this re-working a sentence that doesn’t sound “right” or isn’t clear.

LeTourneau also acknowledges the old adage that if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. He believes it is possible for people to develop an intuitive knowledge of the varieties of grammatical and syntactic constructions available. (Though understandable for an author of a college grammar text, he seems to make a contradictory claims: “To decide whether to change a sentences requires being able to say why it ought to be changed, and for this at least a rudimentary knowledge of grammatical terms is useful” [7]).

In the post “What is Grammar,” we looked at possible and impossible or ungrammatical sentences: Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” vs. “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.”  With stylistic grammar, we consider possible and effective sentences. This is similar to Martha Kolln’s approach in her book Rhetorical Grammar, often referenced in this blog; in particular, in the post on sentence structure and rhythm: variations in presenting items in a series will result in different emphases.

The three applications of grammar to style LeTourneau enumerates are the following:

  1. stylistic analysis – characterizing “a piece of writing objectively, in terms of its grammatical features” with regard to the rhetorical situation.
  2. stylistic revision – identifying a “default style” to correct stylistic faults, such as excessive use of the passive, and to “widening the range of voices or personae” in the writing.
  3. stylistic choices – enlarging “the repertoire of syntactic structures” to increase syntactic fluency or syntactic maturity.

This third application can be accomplished by sentence combining, in which student writers are given short simple sentences (one clause) and asked to combine them into other constructions, such as compound (coordination) or complex (subordination) sentences – depending on the cues given (often in square brackets) Here’s the example LeTourneau provides (447): 

John has not called you in five days. [the fact that]

You are not going steady anymore. [that]

Combined sentence: The fact that John has not called you in five days should tell you that you are not going steady anymore.

He cites studies that sentence combining has proven an effective method of using grammar to teach style because through “guided manipulation of grammatical structures” (stylistic grammar), writers directly access their unconscious grammar, thus increasing their repertoire of syntactic choices for writing (448).

In the last decades of the 20th century, sentence combining became popular as an alternative to more traditional methods of teaching grammar. At the same time, the increase in standardized testing produced a swing toward traditional or prescriptive grammar instruction. As we saw in the overview of grammar instruction, there is still no agreement on what type of grammar should be taught and what methods should be used.

What’s a writer to do? You can begin by considering your motivations and preferences.

Are you happy with your writing? If not, you could analyze your rhetorical style: What kind of language do you use? What is your voice (or persona)? What stylistic faults do you want to correct?

What would the study of English grammar accomplish: Do you want to learn stylistic grammar to increase the range of your syntactic choices (sentence variety)? Do you want to learn traditional grammar and usage in order to increase your credibility and authority with instructors, editors, publishers, and readers?

As with most of the topics in this blog, it comes down to your preferences and your own style.

(Kris Spisak’s book is Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused, Career Press, 2017.)

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