Lose your fear of grammar

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We only have a problem with grammar and punctuation because very few of us master all the rules. Tony Spencer-Smith
Tony Spencer-Smith

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Does the word grammar scare you? Does it bring to mind the errors you made that evoked sniggering or even fury in your readers – and you just couldn’t see what you had done wrong?

Or does the word toll with the horrors of pedantic grammar and punctuation classes where the subject was treated as a set of rules that had to be obeyed on pain of death, even though half of them were incomprehensible?

Those are the two main reasons for grammarphobia, a sometimes crippling fear akin to the fear of spiders, with their excessive number of over-hirsute legs: grammar hardly taught at all, or grammar badly taught by someone with a humourless and narrowly prescriptive view of the subject.

The fact is that grammar and correct punctuation are generally as natural to us as the air we breathe. They are the way any language works, because without consistency and order, words would become a cacophony. And we are born with brains which, on the whole, cope with those rules pretty effortlessly. If we were not, none of us would ever learn to speak.

We only have a problem with grammar and punctuation because very few if any of us master all the rules automatically. Some of the rules are tricky but really matter, and to understand them we need conscious learning.

The good news is that grammar can be taught in a practical, engaging way that feels more like empowerment than imprisonment. There are two tricks to this.

The first is to focus the teaching on the stuff people really need to know. Experts have dreamt up countless confusing grammar terms – and many of them can simply be ignored while others can be explained without opaque jargon.

The second trick is that the stern, fusty grammar mavens of the past, ready with a humourless red pen and ruler, need to be assigned to history.

The modern teaching approach is relaxed and flexible. It looks at grammar and punctuation as a way of becoming a better writer. As the great American style writer Roy Peter Clark puts it, look on the rules as tools. He writes: 'I want to use these tools for effect, to help the reader learn, laugh, cringe and turn the page.'

This approach frees grammar to inspire rather than police. It doesn’t mean that there are not plenty of rules that dare not be broken. But there are other areas where there is considerable flexibility. And once the rules are mastered, you have the freedom to break them to create striking writing effects that will be understood and accepted by the reader.

In their book My grammar and I (or should that be ‘me’)?, Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines write:

Knowing the rules – and breaking them because you feel like it, not because you don’t know any better – will make you a more confident, creative and entertaining writer and speaker.

Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines

So take your courage in your hands and banish your grammar gremlins forever. It will make you a much better writer.

First published . Last updated 14/12/2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Tony Spencer-Smith

Tony Spencer-Smith loves words. He has worked with them all his life – ever since he published his own magazine while still in primary school. He moved on to become a prominent journalist, an award-winning novelist and a corporate writer and editor. In his training, he inspires others to share his enthusiasm for the power of language. Tony is one of Australia’s top corporate writing and editing trainers. In over a decade he has helped thousands of people from blue chip companies, government and not-for-profit organisations to upgrade their communication skills.

The broad experience he brings to his training includes being Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest magazine in both Australia and South Africa; a senior newspaper journalist; and a corporate editorial expert who has written speeches, brochures, reports, websites and internal communications for top clients.

His children’s novel The Man Who Snarled at Flowers won the biggest literary prize in South Africa, while his latest book The Essentials of Great Writing was published in Australia in 2009.

Trainees leave Tony’s classes with a comprehensive set of writing and editing skills to raise their writing to the next level.

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