Posted tagged ‘grammar’

grammar check in Word

September 21, 2020

Over the weekend I tried running the grammar checker in Word against Obelus. It did not go well.

First, you need to know that I consider strictly following the “rules” of grammar to be optional for creative writers. I think narrative voice is far more important in fiction that proper grammar (as long as the reader can follow what’s going on, more or less). In fact, my casual attitude toward grammar is one of the reasons I quit teaching composition at the local community college. Further, one of my stylistic tendencies is the sentence fragment, which I think adds punch and mimics closely the workings inside a character’s or narrator’s mind. My fiction is filled with intentional grammar violations (and even spelling creativity), and never once has an editor asked me to correct these when accepting a story. Nor do I find “perfect” grammar is most of the fiction I read by others.

I consider myself more than adequately adept with the language and the standards of grammar. I used to know most of it by rote, and I’ve absorbed a lot of it by simply reading widely and deeply. But I don’t anguish about formal structuring or correctness. (The grammar checker would have cited that last sentence.) Thus I rarely see the need to use the grammar checker in Word, but over the weekend I gave it a go just to see what I might see.

I could only get through about a tenth of the novel before I gave it up. The narrator of Obelus is a playful scamp, and his (his?) voice matches this. The program was finding dozens of “violations” that needed my attention. In most cases, it had to do with the “improper” use of conjunctions, and I dismissed those readily. It did point out one subject/verb agreement problem that I fixed, but it identified an incorrect use of “it’s” saying it should be “its”, but in fact my use was not possessive but a contraction. So the grammar checker was legit wrong there.

I don’t foresee applying this tool to the rest of the novel. Maybe on some shorter works it might prove an occasional use, but with 101,000+ words to parse, I don’t intend to spend my time using it on Obelus.

because iconoclast

January 30, 2014

I love that the word “because” has become a preposition. “I was late for work because traffic.” I love this fact not so much because I’ll use it in my writing (because unlikely) but because it is a clear sign of the evolution of our language. The construct even has a name: “because NOUN.”

I make no secret of my war with grammar Nazis. Greater minds than mine have called grammar a tool, not a rule. I assert that creative writers are given a free pass on grammar (and punctuation and even spelling) if their writing calls for it. As long as the message is getting through (or not getting through if that’s the intent), then grammar is optional.

Of course if you’re writing technical manuals (which I did for years) or legal contracts (which I did for years) or magazine articles (which I did for years) or even high school term papers (which I did for years), then the “rules” of grammar are necessary to achieve the lingua franca.

But if your thang is creative writing, then help us evolve the language. Be out front and create new styles, new words, new constructions. Evolve “teh grammar.” Because internet, I understand.

In a way, it’s pathetic that some will insist that certain standards of grammar (that prevailed usually in the generation just before theirs) are fixed or at their finest and that any deviation is suspect or trendy or just plain wrong. Because myopia.

I suspect that the because NOUN construct is merely trendy and won’t make its way into standard usage, though the generation after mine seems to be its greatest user.

In service

July 9, 2010

I know I made a semi-vow sometime back that I would stop ranting on this humble blog about the so-called “rules” of grammar and writing and how many newbie or timid writers insist they must be adhered to strictly, but . . .

On another blog I made an observation in the comments about the matter. My comment crystallized my views pretty well, so I thought I would repeat it here:

A question every writer must ask is are the rules in service to your story, or is your story in service to the rules?

In my view, the needs of the storytelling trump any rules of grammar or usage or even spelling and punctuation. Do you want to use sentence fragments to, say, heighten the tension or show the disjointed state of a character’s mind? Will neologisms or “creative” grammar better suit the narrative voice you have selected? Do you want to write a long, convoluted sentence (I’m thinking of John Banville or William Faulkner) just for the sheer elegance of it?

There are plenty of times when the rules get in the way of good writing, and the careful writer must be aware of this and be free to depart when necessary.

The things some people do

March 16, 2010

I swear my point is not to rant about the some writers’ slavish devotion to the “rules” of grammar. This time it’s about some readers‘ slavish devotion to the “rules” of grammar.

Several months ago I read a post on another blog about the imagined necessity of a writer adhering to the rules of good grammar. One of the egregious sins cited was the split infinitive. One commentor noted that she can’t stand split infinitives and every time she sees one in print she throws the book she’s reading across the room.

First of all, a split infinitive is not strictly a grammatical error. There is no rule of grammar dealing with it. At most it’s a stylistic consideration, but even that is a learned response. There is nothing inherently odd sounding about a split infinitive. In many cases, the very best place for the modifying adverb to go is within the infinitive form of the verb.

But back to my point. Whether it’s a split infinitive or a comma splice (commonly used by Iris Murdoch) or a shifting narrative voice (common to Philip Roth) or a sentence fragment or any of dozens of “bad” grammatical structures, if a reader trains herself to find immediate offense at them, she is doing herself a reading disfavor. She is limiting herself to a narrow band of writing. She is going to the buffet table and eating only carrots. She is bypassing a very large selection of very good, very dramatic, very worthwhile writing.

I suspect that most good writers have a basic grasp of the common rules of grammar. Most, I imagine, have done their best to forget these rules (as I was coached by one writing instructor), because they have an inherent sense of how to string words and sentences together. They have a gift for it, and any so-called rules are really beside the point. The pity is when the small mind insists on them and limits itself to nothing but them.

The grammar continuum

November 18, 2009

This is the way I see it: there are uses of grammar, and there are abuses of grammar. An otherwise fine piece of creative writing that is “corrected” to follow the “rules” of grammar is one of the abuses.

The uses of grammar are illustrated by a continuum. At one end sit legal and technical writing. Because clarity of thought and exact expression of ideas are paramount to these kinds of communication, strict application of grammar makes sense. At the other end of the continuum is poetry, which is as free from the formal rules as clouds in the sky. Somewhere about in the middle lie high school term papers and basic journalism. Grammar serves as the low common denominator that high school students must strive for and general readers comprehend.

Fiction writing sits squarely between high school term papers and poetry. Grammar can help along the way, but the rules can be ignored whenever a better way of expressing an idea needs to be used. In fact, creative writing can sometimes strive to be obscure, and grammar can often get in the way of that.

*   *   *

Why do I rant about grammar so much? I use it. I used to teach it. I used to edit for it. I think what bugs me about it is not the grammar itself but the advocates of it. I see again and again blog posts about how critical grammar is to fiction writing, but it seems to be written by people who make only rudimentary, unreflective use of it. (And I see a cavalier dispensing of grammar by writers who win acclaim, awards, and longevity.) I really should get a different hobby than tilting at windmills.

Fugitive from the Grammar Police

June 20, 2008

It’s all about communication in the end. Getting your message across to your audience. That’s how I look at grammar. Which is to say, I consider the rules of grammar to be more guidelines than actual rules.

While I tend to adhere to the rules of spelling and punctuation, and while I really do tend to adhere to the rules of grammar, I’m not going to let an ungrammatical structure stop me from saying whatever it is I have to say in the way that seems most suited to the circumstance. Sometimes the most efficient and effective way to say something — especially something that needs punch — is with bad grammar.

Probably my biggest violation is the sentence fragment. Mostly. The whole idea of not ending a clause or sentence with a preposition is something I scoff at. Generally. (Who wants to read a sentence like this: “The whole idea of not ending a clause or sentence with a preposition is something at which I scoff”?)

I also take umbrage at the litany, the monotonal chorus, of people who object to adverbs in fiction. Several big-name writers have special soapboxes they trot out to pontificate about the evils of “-ly” words. It gets tiresome. Yes, a stronger verb might be more effective than a regular verb modified by an adverb. And yes, I do try to keep my adverbs to a minimum, but even those who cut out every “-ly” adverb still use adverbial phrases. And you have to use an adverb to modify an adjective, dammit.

Of course you can get away with a lot more in fiction — as long as you are getting your message across to the reader. Getting your creative genius past a finicky agent so that you can at least make your case for it with an editor isn’t always guaranteed, but if your wording works, it should makes its own case. In nonfiction, of course, one must hew more closely to the established rules. Readers of nonfiction are more interested in the subject matter and less interested in the story telling than readers of fiction.

Nonetheless, I’m astonished by some of the grammar bending I see even in such an august institution as the New York Times. I’ve seen sentences, even paragraphs, begun with conjunctions there. An old article in Slate talks about some grammar errors in the revered Chicago Manual of Style no less. You don’t expect bad grammar in places like these even when you allow yourself the occasional transgression.

Maybe what bugs me the most is the automatic grammar checker in Word. I’ve turned it off on my writing computer. Granted its artificial intelligence can’t meet the demands put on it, but should a grammar-naive writer rely on it for guidance? I’ve heard stories of grammar-naive managers telling their subordinates that they must apply whatever suggestions Word’s grammar checker offered. Who would want to work at a place like that, especially if you knew how to write well? (“Well” being one of those nasty adverbs that don’t end in “-ly” so are generally overlooked in the slash-and-burn edits some writers insist upon — or upon which some writers insist.)

Disclaimer: I have a graduate degree in writing. I taught college composition for several years. I’ve written dozens of technical manuals and scores of articles for magazines and newspapers. I think I know my way around in the grammar thicket. That’s why I presume to attack it.