I failed ruler in third grade. Though I couldn’t be trusted to take an accurate measurement, the notched wooden implement with the metal edge did serve a useful purpose in my young life: drawing precise lines and angles to diagram sentences. I’m pretty sure that was the same year I won the class spelling bee, too. The Queen of the Bee would not keep her throne for long. That was also the beginning of the end of my academic grammar glory days. Sometimes, you can’t let go, though. A few months ago, all puffed up and certain I still had my grammar chops, I took a quiz online—and failed.
Today, a diagrammed sentence looks like a math equation to me. If I don’t write at the keyboard, my spelling could be mistaken for a foreign language—and probably not one of this earth, either! Of course, you might not even notice since my handwriting is a sloppy jumble of loops and stabs.
So did I just give up on the subjects and predicates? The objects and conjunctions? The participles and prepositions? No, I still loved them all, especially gerunds. But I no longer called the parts of speech by name. Instead, I developed a feel for language. I internalized it. I started to manipulate it in different ways to suit different purposes. Note: There are enough grammatical errors in that paragraph alone to send my fourth grade teacher, Sister Angela, into a wooden ruler-wielding frenzy.
As an advertising copywriter, I twist language into clever concoctions to entice, invite or entertain. Writing public relations articles, I arrange words to state the facts in a compelling way. It’s all about brand identity.
Then there’s fiction. Molding, melding and mashing up language is most fun and freeing when telling a story. Yes, yes, do keep your subjects and verbs living in happy harmony and your tenses in the same time period. But you must also stay true to the voice of the piece. If that means kicking out the verb and letting a fragment punch home a thought, do it. MS Word might not forgive you, but your readers will. If a character speaks in double negatives, let him. His speech pattern reveals a lot about him. If you write a long, rambling, run-on, crazy, lyrical, slinky, sashaying sentence, leave it. Let it settle in. Look at it later and see if it still works.
I joke about my early infatuation with diagramming sentences, but the truth is the exercise laid a solid foundation for learning language skills. A painting teacher at SVA once told me you have to learn the rules to break them.
As a tribute to Sister Angela, I’ll confess my grammar sins. You probably know most of them just by reading this post.
- Fragments. I love fragments.
- And I start sentences with conjunctions.
- Sometimes, I go comma-crazy.
Want to get the grammar going on? Check out some of these sites:
Triangle Grammar Guide Quizzes
Get it Write
Common Errors in English Usage Daily