Friday, June 10, 2011

Grammar

When I was a little girl and in school, I could have sworn that my teachers presented grammar as set-in-stone rules. The way they showed me how to do something was the only way to do it. I graduated from high school and moved on to college, and no one ever said anything different.

Well, guess what? I moved into the business world and attended a training session that provided me with a "Duh!" moment.

Latin grammar never changes because Latin is a dead language. Dead? Yes. Because there's nowhere in the world where people actively speak it, so it never changes.

That doesn't work with English. English is a vibrant, ever-changing language. It's the official language in several countries, and each one manages to tweak it in their own way. For example, in 2007, the word Woot was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary word of the year. If you follow the link you'll see what it means. But do you know where it came from? We Owned the Other Team. It's a gaming term that's now being used by people who aren't gamers.

Snarky is another word I like. I heard it for the first time when I became a moderator at the Leaky Lounge. Many of the other moderators are British, and that's been mostly a British term, according to Dictionary.com. But I'm hearing it a lot now, both from people I associate with and on American television and in American books.

This is my first post in a weekly series on grammar (future posts should be shorter). From what I read in books, we writers seem to have a bit more discretion than people in the business world. For example, Jo Rowling uses comma splices all the time. What's a comma splice? It's when you use a comma to connect to standalone sentences. In business writing, it's considered poor grammar.

Ted grabbed the ball. He threw it at Bill.

Ted grabbed the ball, he threw it at Bill. (this is a comma splice.)

Grammatically correct options? You can connect the two sentences with the word "and".

Ted grabbed the ball, and he threw it at Bill.

If the sentences are closely related, you could use a semicolon.

Ted grabbed the ball; he threw it at Bill.

But Rowling's editors didn't find it necessary to edit out all her comma splices, so that implies to me that for writing books (not about grammar or for business), we may have some discretion. Who decides? My guess is your editor.

But everyone needs to know there are different styles of grammar. And the rules are different, depending upon the style you're using. When I teach classes on grammar, I suggest that my coworkers choose one style and be consistent. At work, we use the Gregg Reference Manual. This is business oriented, but it's still a good resource about grammar rules. They update every five years to keep up with trends. Click here if you'd like to see a list of other sources.

Notice in the following (hilarious) video the reference to the Chicago Manual of Style. They aren't talking fashion.



So where are your grammar strengths? How about your weaknesses? What resources do you prefer to use?

21 comments:

  1. Hahaha! Great video.

    I have my grammar hang ups. My worst is the lay/lie conundrum. I've read the rule dozens of times and still can't get it straight in my head. My best option is usually to just find another word.

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  2. I have the same problem with lay/lie. I usually let Word's grammar checker fix it for me and pray that it's right--because often it's not.

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  3. Don't trust grammar checker! It often lies as in tells untruths, not reposes. I agree with the whole lie/lay thing! That verb drives me nuts!

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  4. I loved writing because it forced me to learn my grammar better, even if it meant googling commas. I try not to comma splice though. But I never noticed them in any of the Harry Potter books!

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  5. Betsy, everyone once in a while Grammar Checker gets it right. It just doesn't understand content.

    Laura, I noticed it first when I was gearing up to teach a grammar class to coworkers. And I've read those books so many times and marked them up that it stood out to me. But only because I'd learned we weren't supposed to do it. That's why I think there must be some leeway given for artistic license.

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  6. LOL!!! Loved this video, Donna. Thanks for sharing!

    Nazis. ARRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHH.

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  7. Oh yes, lay/lie and I've recently discovered I sometimes have problems with further/farther. Grammar rules were pounded in so hard I still wince if I do something against them (like start a sentence with "and" or "but").

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  8. Bryce, I used that video for a 2-hour training I did. Had to keep the humor up because grammar can be a real snoozer.

    Shannon, there's an easy key to help remember the further/farther confusion. Far=distance.

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  9. i kno my grammar rules, i just choose to ignore them, especially in comments and texting. i'm pretty good at adhering to them in my ms =)

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  10. Language is a method to communicate ideas or stories - oral works out different than written for that reason.

    To use your example of the comma splice above, it works in a story because it connects the two actions. In a business setting, it probably wouldn't be the best solution since business writing has different needs.

    If you are writing a romantic fantasy story, you will find that you use a different structure of sentence and story than you might for an action adventure science fiction story. The same language, same language rules, but different audiences (sometimes).

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  11. Tara, I think grammar is probably a lot like table manners at times. There are our picnic in the outdoors manners and there are our china in a fancy setting and a bazillion forks manners.

    Chris, exactly. There's an artistic expression that can come into play. I can't image my city council liking artistic expression in their minutes, however. =D

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  12. John Sandford is a well-published author whose books are chock full of grammar splices. He uses them to dictate pace. I do, too, because I learned it from him. :) I'm sure he got it from someone else.

    I use a number of different sources for grammar; blogs, Tweets, published books. Mostly I observe the writing of writers I admire.

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  13. I love this post! It's hard to keep up with grammar "trends" and to keep track of what's acceptable. I usually still err on the side of caution and go with "you have to know the rules before you can break them." Again, great post!

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  14. I have a comma problem. I use too many. I also stay away from semicolons. They sort of freak me out. ;)

    Great post.

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  15. Oooh, good post.

    Commas are also one of my weak points, I'm a bit of a comma splicer. I am trying to get myself out of the habit, but it's comforting to know the Rowls'er is a bit of a splicer.

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  16. I love comma splices, when used properly, they give a sense of stream of consciousness or a faster pace. I think with all the other "rules" in writing, you gotta know them to break them.

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  17. Ev, that's where we have to find that artistic flair in us and push the internal editor off. To a point.

    Jess, I agree. We really do need to know the rules to get when it's okay to break them.

    Chantele, I know what you mean about commas. That's something that's changed with time. The rules were a lot simpler when I was growing up. You put commas anywhere you would pause when reading it aloud. Um ...

    Ian and Shelli, I think the splicing for pacing is good. It's just important to recognize when we're using it so we use it on purpose, for effect.

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  18. When I found out (in college) that APA and MLA have different ways to punctuate sentences I was disillusioned about my elementary grammar teachers--heehee. I got over it, of course, but I keep that in mind when things change from time to time.

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  19. That was too funny! Too bad my son watched the end.
    S.B. Niccum
    Author Website
    Blog

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  20. Oh wow, that video was absolutely hilarious.

    I've always had a knack for grammar. Even if I don't actually know the rules, I tend to get them right because my extensive reading has trained me.

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