Monday, 25 January 2010

Just Like Grammar Used to Make

I'm guessing that the majority of us writers use Microsoft Word (although I'm still flying the flag for longhand first drafts) and that we've all tussled with the Grammar Checker from time to time. For many years, I just turned it off, traumatised by the biblical plague of green snakes that wriggled across my page. In recent years, as writing well has become a religion, I've allowed it back into my life. For all of its many reasonable suggestions, it always feels like an ultra-strict schoolmarm, constantly rapping me across the knuckles for such heinous crimes as "Wordiness" and "Fragment (consider revising)". Wouldn't it be great if they added a mode that could congratulate you when you get something right, with statements like "Superlative imagery in that sentence" or "Groovy verb use, man."

People of my generation are always saying that we weren't taught grammar at school and that's why we don't write proper, like. I have vague memories of concepts like prepositions and reflexive pronouns but they are quite often adrift in my head, unconnected to the thing they actually describe. Accordingly, I've grown up with a very pragmatic approach to grammar - if it feels right, it is right - and a lot of the time that seems to work, even if I couldn't tell you why. This is probably what I get for taking English Literature at A Level instead of Language, but would I be a writer now if it had been the other way round? Hard to say, but it's always been the emotional rather than the technical that inspires me. On the other hand, the world would have been saved from that great satirical work The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers.

Over the past few years, I've been actively searching for the nasties in my work and trying to scrub them out. Excess adverbs were the first to go, followed by the passive voice, badly punctuated speech and all of those hyphenated/unhyphenated/separated words and phrases. Now I have found a new evil in the war against my writing - the comma splice (where a comma separates two unrelated clauses). Yep, all those times that Word suggested using a semicolon instead of a comma - it was telling the truth. Grammar has become like a kind of video game where every time I vanquish some fault, another more insidious foe takes its place. A lot like the "War on Terror", actually.

Remember, the enemy is everywhere, they could be hiding in this very sentence.



  1. That's so me!Apostrophes haunt me......great post, look forward to reading more.

  2. Hmm.Went to a grammar school (and didn't we know it), learnt lots of languages and taught them for years. Now I'm a published writer and teach creative writing at university. I am so pleased I know and understand grammar. I'm always breaking the rules, but know how and when to do it. And I'll never award a 1st if there is sloppiness in the writing, never mind how good it is in other ways.
    If in doubt, be grammatical. Quite important for the Ameican market,actually. But behold! my fragments ....
    Love the idea of complimentary spell-checker.