Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Take Your Prescriptive Grammar Medicine

Julie Demoff-Larson
They call themselves grammar Nazis. You know who you are and we know you are watching. No matter what the words may be written on or what form it is presented, these masters of language will judge your writing by the errors you failed to recognize even after your fifth edit. Don’t get me wrong, we need these readers to point out the comma splices, run-ons and dangling participles. Well written grammar represents professionalism and an astute understanding of the function of language. In academics, this is called prescriptive grammar and grammarians that follow this line are strict when it comes to the use of form and function in the English language. However, stringent rules don’t always lend to creativity in writing, but in order for writers to play with form they must first understand the rules.
I personally wrestle with grammar. Sometimes it has me in a headlock, but if I can break free and get a grip on it then the outcome is usually worth the effort. My problems with grammar stem from a lack of formal training. In high school, months were spent discussing, reading, and acting out Macbeth and endless vocabulary review, but never once was diagramming sentences introduced. It is now, after almost five years into my education, that I find my footing is a bit more stable when I am writing.
When writers understand the form and function of a sentence there is a confidence that comes through in their work. And when the rules are understood, then they can be broken. The writer can then experiment with the form to create tone, humor, and pace.  Descriptive grammar, the practice of looking at language through social observation, tends to define the creative writer’s understanding of language.  Observation is relative to distinguishing what is appropriate and inappropriate use of language, which is key for the creation of compelling characters. Without observation, the risk of creating stereotypes and inauthenticity is greatly increased, but through it time, place, and realistic characters are developed. Descriptive grammar, unlike prescriptive (sounds like taking medicine), is relaxed and therefore accepts variants of language found in regional dialects, social class structures, and various age groups. Observe people and you find that how we speak is not proper English grammar. So, let loose and don’t worry about the grammar Nazis.

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