Do I need to study grammar to be a good writer?
Here’s a quote from a book I very much enjoyed:
“My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods.” (The Hunger Games, Chapter 1)
How many bowyers is Katniss hiding in the woods?[i] Did she free them before the bad guys destroyed District 12 or are the poor buggers still there, stuck under a tree, waiting for rescue? And how many readers care that bad grammar riddles the book?
If Suzanne Collins can sell 17.5 million copies of The Hunger Games, do we need to study grammar at all?
You don’t need good grammar to be successful.
Let’s try another one: How many of the 125 million copies sold of Fifty Shades of Grey have a red circle around the comma in “my heartbeat picks up again, this feels so… so good.”?[ii]
One can write a successful book without good grammar. The internet has spent a lot of time poking holes in The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades—which was a good thing for me writing this article, because my proofreading is terrible. And I liked The Hunger Games, dodgy grammar or no. So, screw grammar, right?
Sorry, you should still study grammar.
I find the specific study of grammar abnormally difficult. My writing is an oral process: I speak the words and transcribe them to the page. I have a decent handle on spoken advocacy and rhetoric, but formal grammar may as well be rocket science. To be honest, I’ve had a better time with rocket science. Grammar sucks.
Unfortunately, and no matter how many fantastic writers have gotten away with it, study of formal grammar is an important part of being a good writer. In this article I’ll explain why, look at the difference between story, grammar and rhetoric, and how a precise understanding paradigmatic and syntactic[iii] choice can improve your stories. Sure, you can succeed without studying grammar—and you can hope a copy editor will fix your mistakes. But a bit of grammar can make you a better writer.
Hang on, what is a good writer anyway? Are you sure we need grammar?
A good writer does good writing. Erm… A good writer writes good? Asking what makes “good” writing is a dangerous question. If we aren’t careful, we’ll end up like Pirsig trying to decide what sort of washer to put on our motorcycle. When is writing good?
Good writing communicates: it is both effective and impressive. Effective means it says what you (the writer) intended it to say. But, in fiction, effective isn’t worth a damn if you don’t have a story to tell. Effectively telling someone that the toilet is at the end of the corridor maybe a worthy endeavour, but nobody will buy the movie rights.
Is the lesson of Hunger Games and Fifty Shades that story is the only thing that matters? If you have a good story, does it matter if you don’t know cadence from caterwaul; a correlative conjunction from phrasal adjective?
Story, Rhetoric and Grammar
Let’s talk about the three components of good fiction writing.
Story is the central component: the tale you have to tell, the narrative you have to weave. The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades had compelling stories to tell. If you don’t have that, well, get it, fast.
Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive writing: figures of speech, use of sound, rhythm and rhyme, and all other compositional techniques that make our writing beautiful.
Grammar labels the relationships between rules. It doesn’t care so much about meaning: the words are classified by function.
Good story is essential (and it’s something we’ve talked about elsewhere). And perhaps that is key to understanding Fifty Shades of Grey—sometimes a story is so compelling to its audience it overcomes other limitations. But what about grammar and rhetoric?
Rhetoric is not Grammar
Rhetoric impresses. It changes the subjective experience of the text. Consider:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
This is a rather long winded refusal to surrender. But it worked. The way Churchill put the words together enhanced the emotional impact of the speech.
Grammar, meanwhile, is objective. It classifies, puts things in boxes called “correct” and “incorrect.” It doesn’t care about the subjective experience of the text any more than it cares about story. This means that writing can be grammatically correct but still ineffective, confusing, or unpleasant to read. As anyone who has read a grammar textbook will attest.
So we have a strong argument for studying rhetoric: beautiful writing has more impact. But why should we give a shit about categorising and labelling words if it isn’t an essential part of beautiful writing? There are many examples of rhetorical excellence which are grammatically incorrect: Jane Austen’s double negatives, Dicken’s run-on sentences, basically all of Ulysses. Can’t we just get by reading as much good writing as possible and learning what sounds right?
Paradigmatic and Syntactical Choices
When you write any sentence, you make paradigmatic and syntactical choices.
Paradigmatic choices are which words we choose. “Fast” could instead be “quick”, “swift”, “rapid”, etc… etc… but if I say “balloon” when I mean “bumper truck” I have probably fucked up. The meaning of my sentence has changed, and not in a good way.
But choice of word is not just about “correct” or “incorrect.” There is a rhetorical adventure in paradigmatic selection: how do I choose a word that means what I want to say while sounding how I want to sound? If you enjoy this sort of thing, well, you’re a writer. Get used to the idea you’ll probably never earn a living wage.
Syntactical choices determine syntax: the order in which we put the words. Like paradigmatic choices (which word shall I use), syntactical choices (in what order shall I put the words) impact both meaning and rhetoric. Let’s start with meaning:
Option A: While reading, people who hum are annoying.
Option B: People who hum while reading are annoying.
This is a similar problem to Katniss Everdeen’s stash of bowyers in the woods. Who is reading, who is humming? The order of your words can change a balloon into a bumper truck without the bother of malapropism.
But syntactical choices are also fundamental to rhetoric. Figures of speech rely on specific placing of words; “we shall fight them on the beaches” works because of the specific, rhythmic form and repetition of shall; effective jokes usually put the key word last in the final sentence.
Grammar helps you make choices
This is the key to why grammar is important. Grammar doesn’t care about rhetoric or the syntactical contractions we go through to make a phrase beautiful. But grammar is central to whether and how syntax changes meaning: whether our reader is humming or Katniss is hiding bowyers in trees.
You can write a good sentence without knowing a modifier from an appositive. But grammar is a diagnostic tool. It lets you know what bits go where when you perform surgery on your sentences. This not only helps you understand why a sentence has gone wrong, but it gives you options when you want to fix it. Grammar is liberating.
Without the ability to label and identify your parts of sentence, you are like a stag who staggers drunk into a hospital and finds their surgeon’s costume taken a little too seriously. You can fiddle around a bit but if the patient lives its more luck that judgement. Doing it by ear ends up slow, inflexible and potentially fatal.
A writer cares about words. A writer cares about the order of words.
You cannot separate content from form. Every word must have value, we should seek the shortest route to the best response. The more we understand the mechanics of the sentence the better we form clear, concise, comprehensible sentences that convey meaning.
Yes, you need to study grammar.
You can be a good writer by accident. You can be a good writer because you read the right things and it rubbed off, and write a good book because you are burning up with a great story to tell.
So you don’t need to study grammar to be a good writer. But I wouldn’t take the chance.
Did EL James use bad grammar on purpose? If so, did it help her book? Fifty Shades is almost as widely ridiculed as it is loved. Does she care? I don’t know, but a imagine being able to swim in vast swathes of cash helps. And good on her for writing a great story so many people love.
The case is more complicated with Suzanne Collins. Both The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey are in first person perspective. But whereas Anastasia Steele is a graduate who should probably know how to organise a sentence, Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old who grew up in a dystopian mining community. One might argue the grammar reflects the character’s state of mind. I’m not persuaded. I think (forgive me) those books deserved a better copy-editor.
Errors in writing make it harder for the reader to understand the text. This breaks immersion. Like the aforementioned “errors” by Dickens, Austen and Joyce, there is clearly a case for bad grammar in the service of good writing. But that’s only going to work where the rhetoric is great, and the rhetoric is more likely to be great when your paradigmatic and syntactical choices are informed by the study of grammar.
Both of Fifty Shades and The Hunger Games had powerful stories. I can only dream of writing something that touches people so profoundly. But imagine what they could have been with better grammar!
And, for those of us not-yet-inspired with an epoch changing story, good grammar might just be the edge we need to turn mediocre into adequate (which pretty much sums up how I feel about my writing at the moment.).
What was the purpose of this article?
Wow, you made it this far!
This article has helped me learn what “paradigmatic” and “syntactical” means, has helped me solidify my understanding of the difference between rhetoric and grammar, and brought me further along in my quest to understand why I’m working so hard when I might be better off writing Twilight fan-fiction.
I hate studying grammar. It makes me feel like an idiot. I don’t really care what we call the bits of a sentence: I want to them not label them! So consider this blog post a 2000 word effort to persuade myself.
I now have 20,000 words of grammar notes I’ve been pulling together over the course of the year. I am slowly, painfully turning these into a series of articles about grammar and rhetoric. This is the first.
You don’t need great grammar to write a great story: the proof is all around us. But it studying grammar makes you a better writer. So I’ll be putting up more articles on grammar over the course of the next year.
May the force be with us all. Or, you know, sparkly sex vampires. Whatever floats your boat.
[i] A wonderful (and funny) critique of the grammar in The Hunger Games can be found at https://academicalism.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/on-the-writing-o-the-hunger-games/
[ii] My thanks to The People for spotting and writing about this error (the comma should be a semi-colon) -I still haven’t managed to read all of Fifty Shades of Grey. http://people.com/celebrity/fifty-shades-of-grey-the-top-9-grammar-mistakes/
[iii] I wrote syntactic as “synatic” about 134 times in the process of writing this article. Seriously. Grammar and I are not made for one another.