The Write Stuff--Part 6: Grammar

What's fit for casual correspondence may not cut it when you're writing for publication.


Did you go to grammar school? I did, but my daughter didn't. By the time Becky's mornings with Sesame Street were reprogrammed to accommodate public education, she was officially enrolled in elementary school--at least that's what Massachusetts and New York called the first 6 to 8 years of reading, writing, arithmetic and dodgeball.

I'm wondering if grammar is part of that "elementary" curriculum. After 37 years of reviewing young adults' résumés, reports, manuscripts and memos, I'd have to say no--at least not to the extent it was in the 1950s and '60s. Writing at an eighth-grade level used to be a prerequisite for high school; now it seems to be the endpoint of formal education. That's why this month's column confronts the "grammar gap"--the difference between casual self-expression and prose fit for publication.

What is grammar, anyway? My dictionary defines it as "the form and structure of words." For example, "Its important to write good" contains two grammatical errors: Its should be It's--a contraction for It is, instead of the possessive form of It; and good should be well--an adverb modifying write. I wouldn't want to say how many times I've encountered those mistakes; I might discourage you.

Another element of composition is syntax, "the arrangement of and relationship among words." Grammar and syntax usually are linked; it's rare to read a manuscript where one is fine and the other is fractured. Syntax is more subjective than grammar and, therefore, harder to teach. Like movies and music, sometimes what's bad is easier to spot than what's good.

If you want to write for publication, you have to confront the nuances of syntax and the rules of grammar. That's a lifelong exercise, but maybe I can help by highlighting a few common errors:

1. Sentences are supposed to express complete thoughts. Readers should be able to distinguish a subject, an action and perhaps an object. "I filled the E tank with propane. Instead of oxygen." incorrectly elevates a clause, "Instead of oxygen," to sentence status. A good way to verify the appropriateness of a sentence is to ask yourself, is it self-sufficient? Or does it depend on another sentence, like what I just wrote? (Memo to aspiring writers: Starting a sentence with And, But or So, although grammatically incorrect, isn't a bad thing once in a while.)

2. Commas, colons, semicolons and dashes--that's a column by itself. Indications and differentials for those punctuation marks are often subtle and subjective. Here are some guidelines:

  • Use commas before conjunctions (e.g., and, but) introducing independent clauses--phrases that could stand alone as sentences, without the conjunctions.
  • Separate items in lists with commas, as I did at the beginning of this section.
  • Use commas before and after dependent clauses--phrases that aren't complete enough to form sentences.
  • Colons signal readers that the author is about to amplify or illustrate the preceding clause, after a pause. "Two things I don't like about my paycheck are: taxes and not enough zeros" doesn't need a colon, but "There are two things I don't like about my paycheck: taxes and not enough zeros" does.
  • Semicolons can be used to join independent clauses; however, I'm tempted to suggest you keep that simple by forming two sentences instead. I could have done that here.
  • Dashes are analogous to diagnoses of exclusion--what doctors favor when nothing else fits. Usually, we use dashes as substitutes for verbal pauses--or whatever. (Sorry, I was just looking for another reason to use a dash.)

3. Use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks; for example, "I looked at my partner and said, 'I thought you had the keys.'"

4. Have a bias for active, rather than passive forms of speech. The latter are wordy and more awkward. "I'm reminded of the time I was told by a patient that she did not want to be intubated by me" should be shortened and simplified: "I remember a patient who said, 'Don't intubate me!'"

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