So, Yeah, I’m Ruled By Grammar Rules
I like to think I’m a person who follows the rules. I pay my taxes on time; I drive the speed limit (mostly); I wait my turn in line. The same is true in my grammar usage. I keep my commas and periods inside quotation marks. I’m careful when choosing between “their,” “they’re,” and “there.” When a day and date are used together, I always separate them by a comma, as in Wednesday, June 9.
So it came as quite the surprise to me when I first became a step-mom to elementary school children to learn that the stories and assignments they wrote and turned in were not graded for grammar. No periods? No problem. Forget how to spell “cheetah” or “bounce”? Forget about it. Leave out verbs in half your sentence? Who cares? As long as the students were learning to express themselves and enjoying doing it, the rules didn’t matter.
At least not to the teacher or the administrators, and definitely not to my nine-year-old stepson. But they mattered a great deal to me.
“I judge people’s professionalism based on their grammar usage,” I said to my husband later when the boys were in bed. “These kids are going to be judged.”
“Well, they are only nine,” he said.
“But if they do it wrong now, they’ll do it wrong later,” I insisted, knowing the opposite was certainly true. My own boss had recently called me out for starting a sentence with “and,” a hard and fast rule she’d learned 45 years earlier in third grade. It was the same rule I’d since learned wasn’t all that hard and fast. (I do have an occasional rebellious streak.)
As I read my son’s papers over the next year or two, though, something struck me. He was actually a good writer. Even if he didn’t always have the commas in the right place, he developed a sense of rhythm through his word choices and other punctuation. Also, though his words were often misspelled, he spelled them well enough for me to know what he meant. And most importantly, this kid who didn’t really like reading or writing seemed to enjoy these creative writing assignments. What would have happened if a rule follower like me had gotten a hold of him?
In Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, Lawrence Weinstein spends a whole chapter on the importance of grammatical correctness, of following the rules even of the “trivial sort.” He says doing so “serves us in the same way propriety works to our advantage in settings ranging from a track meet to a formal wedding: It helps us to obtain respect.”
But in the very next chapter, he makes an equally compelling case for why some of us just need to chill out a little when it comes to grammar rules. “Every person who, like me, has mastered some few dozen rules of grammar stands in constant danger of becoming a negative force in the life of the uninitiated,” he writes. “Many of us trigger-happy wielders of red pens must curb our ways or stop pretending to be playing one of our community’s most sacred roles, that of mentor.”
Apart from the kind of abrupt correction most of us have either received and shriveled under, Weinstein offers three alternatives.
First, he suggests modeling for others the correctness they are lacking, showing proper grammar usage by example in our own or others’ writing. Then, there’s scaffolding, or saying “only that a phrase or two in [their text] ‘don’t look quite right’ to us and pause right there.” Many writers will then recognize the problem and fix it themselves. Finally, he suggests helping the writer by identifying the “root misunderstandings that produce mistakes.”
Citing Mina Shaughnessy’s 1977 Errors and Expectations, Weinstein says that “people who go wrong grammatically aren’t always being slipshod or arbitrary: Surprisingly often, they are actually adhering to rules—what they believe the rules to be.” Once the misunderstanding is cleared up, they will likely be equally adherent to the rules as they actually are, which was always the goal.
As it turns out, the rule-following part of me that wanted to tidy up all the commas in my son’s short stories all those years ago is still there. It’s the same part of me that recently read through my now-18-year-old son’s essay for the United States Defense Department about why he wants to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and saw a few run-on sentences and misplaced modifiers. I was tempted to touch up a couple of things, since “even professional writers have editors,” I later explained to my husband.
But as Weinstein says so beautifully, “In order to continue to develop—in order, that is, to make good use of correction—a person needs to be assured (or to know already, from long experience) that his corrector holds both him and his not-yet-displayed, latent abilities in high regard.” As someone who’s still learning not to judge others by their grammatical errors, I wasn’t sure my son had that assurance from me. So I simply said, quite truthfully in fact, “It sounds just right.”
After all, Weinstein has another rule about grammar that pretty much exceeds all others: “Nobody should be cut off from the inner well of confidence to get on in this world.” And that’s a rule that seems worth keeping.
In his new book Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, Lawrence Weinstein invites readers into their own journey of well-being through the intentional uses of grammar. We invite you to join us as Charity Singleton Craig leads our discussion.
Grammar for a Full Life Book Club Announcement
June 2: Grammar to Take Life in Hand plus Grammar for Creative Passivity
June 9: Grammar for Belonging and Grammar for Freedom
June 16: Grammar for Morale, Grammar for Mindfulness, and Grammar for the End
Photo by Herdiephoto, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: On Becoming Less Possessive - June 16, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: Chilling Out on the Grammar Rules - June 9, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: A Passive Voice - June 2, 2021