English: Letís Show It Some Love
© Kathryn Wilkens
Not long ago I heard a published novelist say he had been a terrible English student. A journalist admitted she couldnít spell. Iíve heard other authors say they never learned grammar. It almost sounded as if these writers were proud of themselves.
Bragging about not having learned grammar is like Kobe Bryant saying he never learned the rules of basketball. Saying you donít like English is like Lance Armstrong saying he doesnít like his bicycle.
These writers who say they arenít good at English churn out excellent writing, so I think theyíre being a bit disingenuous. They may want to emphasize their artistry, saying, in effect, ďIím so creative I canít be bothered with mechanics.Ē Or maybe itís the nomenclature that trips them up; they donít know a predicate nominative from a past participle. I suppose it doesnít matter as long as their prose sparkles. Still, have you ever heard a doctor say she didnít bother to learn the difference between a latissimus dorsi and a gluteus maximus?
It isnít only writers, eitherólots of people seem to pride themselves on not having done well in English class. Why is that? You donít hear people boast about not knowing biology or history.
Iíll go out on a limb here to say I love English! Furthermore, Iím not ashamed to say I liked my English classes, where I learned punctuation, sentence structure and spelling, even though I wasnít an A student.
Iíll admit English can be contrary. And itís constantly changing. Trying to keep up with it is challengingóin a fun way. I certainly donít know everything, but when I have questions I can find answers in up-to-date dictionaries, usage manuals and style books.
When I send work out, I try to put forth a professional image. If I donít care enough to make my copy as clean as possible, why would someone want to publish it? I canít control whether or not the editor is going to like my writing, but I can control its quality by making sure there are no errors.
At times, as a contest judge, Iíve been on the other side of the desk. Whereas I read primarily for content, mechanics do matter. Mistakes create a negative impression. Itís like watching a movie and catching a glimpse of the microphone boom at the top of the screen. No matter how dramatic the scene, I am taken out of it. Same with a misspelling or an awkward passageóitís a reminder that Iím reading a story, not in the story.
Hereís what I would say to those writers who disavow any knowledge of English grammar: Itís not too late to learn! Even if you didnít get good grades in English, that doesnít doom you to lifelong failure. Think of all youíve learned in the past decade about computers. You can take digital photos, download them into your computer and upload them to Facebook. Youíre comfortable with spreadsheets and PowerPoint; youíre adroit with your cell phone, GPS and TiVo. Youíve mastered all this and you canít learn a few punctuation and usage rules? Come on. Give yourself a little credit.
Grammar isnít arcane or mysterious. It is simply a description of how the language works. Punctuation is nothing to have a hissy fit about. Those dots and squiggles help get your meaning across to the reader. Correct usage is merely a way to convey your ideas to readers clearly and elegantly.
Nowadays there are humorous grammar books like Woe is I and Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. Usage manuals like Garnerís Modern American Usage are informative without being pedantic. You might find some nice surprises, like itís no longer forbidden to start a sentence with And or But or to end a sentence with a preposition.
Finally, Iíd say to them: When you are invited to speak to groups, please refrain from disparaging the English language.
As writers, letís take pride in English. English is our game and we should know the rules. English is the vehicle for our creative ideas and we should maintain it at top performance. English is our professionóletís show it some love!