English grammar — help or hinderance to a writing career?

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Many, MANY (too many) years ago, I had an “advanced English” course in my senior year of high school. I put quotes around “advanced English” because that was the formal name of the course — it wasn’t just a regular English class, an English composition course, a creative writing course, or anything like that — it was “advanced English.” It was supposed to be a formal study of English grammar.

To this day, I can only recall one useful thing I learned from that two-semester class: Language (in this case the English language) constantly changes, and usage almost always changes before formal rules of grammar. I only vaguely recall terms like “gerunds” and “participles.” And even the words I used to discuss parts of speech and grammatical principles have changed several times since those days.

I learned most of the English grammar I know in junior high school, back in the days when we were forced to diagram sentences, learn parts of speech, learn to spell, learn about syntax, learn punctuation, and all the rest. I learned what a “gerund” was (a verb form that can double as a noun: “walking,” “scrapbooking,” “kissing”). I learned the difference between an adjective and an adverb (Don’t press me on that one and force me to look it up.)

Frankly, the forced study of grammar back in junior high was tough, but I really appreciated it in later years as I began writing. When I found myself working as a copy editor at a daily newspaper the discipline of formal grammar taught me to appreciate the elements of the language, even though I’ve forgotten many of the details. But studying English grammar taught me how to use a style manual when I was a copy editor. It taught me how to clean up some of the punctuation errors and just plain awkward or unclear writing that I encountered — usually BEFORE it got into the newspaper.

So if you lack formal training in English grammar, or if you realize you are weak in many areas of language learning, I encourage you to get back to the basics. Grab a copy of “Elements of Style,” or even an “AP Style Manual,” and learn/review something of the English language as you work on writing it. The more you actually understand about “correct” English grammar, the more skillful you will become at writing clear, concise sentences, paragraphs, and stories. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to develop your own writing voice, your own style of writing.

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