Grammar For Grownups
By Val Dumond
Published by HarperCollins
Copyright ©1993 Reprinted with permission from the author.
Recalling the Parts of Speech
Grammar is not for kids. You were taught the rules of grammar in a way similar to the way you were taught sex, before you had a chance to experiment. Rules, therefore, became meaningless until you had some experience for reference.
Adults can look at grammar (and sex) in a new light. You may have the knack of it now because you’ve had a chance to try it out, but you may need a good review of the guidelines to be sure you’re using them to the best advantage. Now suddenly, as grownups, all that stuff you learned in grade school begins to make sense.
Most writers have little trouble using the language. Like most grownups, they don’t think much about grammar until an opportunity comes up to review the basics. Then comes the eye-opener. “Aha! That’s why I do that!” you hear them say. Now whenever they write themselves into a corner, they have the grammatical guideline to get out.
How did you learn to talk? By listening and copying. How did you learn to write? By following a teacher’s admonitions about “gramm-err!” Back in Miss Miller’s third grade, who wasn’t devastated by the papers returned with red pock marks all over them. The essays kids so proudly put together from their own thoughts were handed back with gaudy red notes telling them to “do it over, spell the words right, use punctuation!” With this kind of start in language, it’s no wonder that many people grow up apologizing:
- “I’m a bad speller.”
- “I never did know where to put the commas.”
- “I have always hated writing.”
Grammar doesn’t have to mean pain anymore. Now that you’ve grown up you are ready to use this marvelous communications tool, to take a new look at an old subject, pick up a few reminders of what you already know, and – at last! – to write and speak with the satisfaction of handling the language well. Grownups are ready to enjoy grammar.
Do you remember your Miss Miller back in your elementary school talking about those horrible predicates and verbals and genders and clauses? At the time you probably were more interested in bicycling and tennis and baseball and building tree houses. You’ll be surprised at how much has stayed with you.
Grownups reviewing grammar are astonished at how much they already know but have forgotten. All through this book, you will find yourself easily recalling the guidelines you need to write well, but which made no sense until you review them with an adult mind.
Is good language use important? You bet it is. But it isn’t restricted, confined, black and white; it’s flexible. Still, grammar provides a structure to communication that, with its nuances and shades of meaning, contributes to the enjoyment of writing, reading, speaking and listening.
Without punctuation and the guidelines of grammar, we’d get lost in the jumble of words. Without the use of reasonable guidelines and consistent standards, communication would be meaningless. The better the ability to use the guidelines, the more fine-tuned and clear is the message.
Someone once said that without the misuse of grammar and punctuation, lawyers would be out of work. On more than one occasion, millions of dollars, legal decisions and enormous prestige have ridden on the placement of a single comma. People who can handle words skillfully earn professional respect. They gain self-confidence and impress clients; they are the ones moving up to better jobs.
Children need rules in grade school. They provide structure, security, foundation. Grownups need guidelines. They can be relied on to make choices for themselves. As a grownup, you need to know that you have the right to stretch the old rules, enhance them, even make up your own. As long as the goal is to improve communications, go for it. Just be sure to throw in a modicum of consistency.
Yes, grammar is an art. Yes, grammar is a skill. Yes, grammar (like sex) holds out the challenge to do it well. And yes, grammar is fun!
Two Parts – Equal But Separate
Writing is a two-part process. Unfortunately, most of us didn’t learn that in grade school. The first part is composition, organizing information into thoughts into ideas to be communicated. We won’t concern ourselves too much with the creative writing process here, other than to look at better ways to project ideas clearly.
The second part is what we’re concerned with in this book – the use of the right word forms, spelled adequately, shaped into usable sentences and punctuated, using the best guidelines to aid in understanding. This whole process is what we call grammar, and it comes after the creative writing part. When we try to apply grammar and spelling rules at the same time that we’re composing ideas, we risk fracturing the message. How can we possibly explain a complex situation or describe a brilliant idea when we’re obsessed with whether or not to use an apostrophe inside or outside the quotation marks?
Corporate personnel who take courses in business writing most often actually want a course in grammar. Business executives and support staff alike are out of touch with the elementary guidelines they learned back in school. Many, confused about commas for instance, will either scatter them indiscriminately throughout their work or refuse to use them at all. Those who are uncertain about spelling whine about their inability to spell and ask someone else to type their work.
Perhaps for the first time, American language users are learning to create their ideas on paper with complete disregard for rules. Then, afterwards they can edit the work with an eye on grammar guidelines and dictionary spelling.
The separation of grammar from creativity is as important an idea as separation of church and state, and has not been emphasized sufficiently in the teaching of grammar.
Believe it or not, dictionaries follow speech, not the other way around. When people began to talk, they didn’t have dictionaries or grammar books. They got along as best they could by making sounds that later would turn up in dictionaries.
Our language still functions this way. We continue to make sounds that aren’t in the dictionaries. If more people make the same sounds, the things catch on and soon, lo and behold, they appear in a dictionary.
Not all dictionaries will insert the new word at the same time. Some dictionary writers wait until everybody knows the word and are using it before they consider adding it to their list of words.
Select your dictionary carefully. Try out a couple before you latch onto one particular model. Different word users prefer different styles of dictionary writing, in the same way they prefer their own kind of novel. Shop for a dictionary the same way you shop for a computer.
And speaking of computers, don’t trust the programs that provide grammar rules and spell checks. Oh, they’re great for catching obvious errors, but they are not as fine-tuned as you will be once you review the guidelines for yourself. In addition, a computer doesn’t have your style.
Neither does a dictionary. It is only a guide, not the highest authority of grammar or usage. You, the communicator, have the role of deciding what to use and what to discard. Dictionaries use such codes as archaic, slang, optional behind words they are unsure of. Take those codes to mean it’s up to you!
This book emphasizes grammar as a separate activity – to improve written communication. The concepts have effectively helped improve the grammar (and writing) of many business people over the years in many areas of commerce—customer service, marketing, sales, personnel and administration—people writing business letters of all kinds, employee appraisals, reports.
Grammar For Grownups is divided into three chapters:
- Recalling the Parts of Speech
- Punctuation—the Guideposts of the Road
- Creating Your Own Style
A workbook section at the end of each chapter provides space for individual notes and practice in using what has just been reviewed. People learn best when they have a space to make notes about what strikes them as important, different or something-I-don’t-want-to-forget. And the exercises show just how easy it is to handle language with confidence.
The first chapter provides a review of the major parts of speech – naming words (nouns and pronouns), verbs, modifying words (adjectives and adverbs), prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and verbals. The names of these parts of speech are distinguished from their functions. A noun does other things than act as a subject, for instance.
The second chapter reviews the punctuation marks that serve as guideposts to writing clear messages. You’ll find simple ideas to help you use punctuation as effectively in written correspondence and business reports as you do in memos and refrigerator notes.
The third chapter deals with putting all the guidelines to work in getting across the right message to the right person. You’ll discover the importance of aiming your message at the expected audience for the stated purpose. You’ll find hints for improving spelling, using numbers, reducing sexism in language, structuring sentences and building paragraphs, as well as selling ideas.
You’ll take a healthy look at many of the areas of word usage that communicators trip over. In each section, you’ll review the more commonly-agreed-upon guidelines and look at some of the common pitfalls. Many times, all it takes is a new and grownup look at a guideline to provide an understanding of why you use words the way you do. “Aha, now I know why some words are capitalized, and others aren’t.”
You may notice that many words can turn up with several names, meaning they can serve in more than one capacity. A word may be a noun and a verb (report), an adjective and an adverb (daily). Words can be stretched and altered to function in several capacities: operate (v.), operator, operation (n.), operational (adj.), operationally (adv.), operative (n. and adj.). A noun may serve in a sentence as either subject or object.
Best of all, the intimidating technical terminology of grammar has been reduced. When it isn’t absolutely necessary to use words like transitive, intransitive, participle, retroactive conjunctivitis, preterit, declension, restrictive and nonrestrictive, we won’t. If you’ve ever had to parse a sentence or conjugate a verb, relax. There’ll be none of that here. As often as possible, terms are used that easily define the function. You will find the word rule used sparingly, if at all.
Simple, remembering tools are offered to make dealing with troublesome word usage even easier the next time it comes up. Each section closes with a few exercises to challenge you and help reinforce what you’ve read. Answers to the exercises are found in the Appendix.
You’ll benefit from this book if you are in business, a professional writer, a classroom teacher, writing instructor, or someone who just wants to use language in the way that gives them an edge. When you talk well, you are listened too with more credibility and respect.
Business people who have to write reports, letters, memos in the course of a routine business day are always in need of guidelines, ways to write more efficiently (and maybe even have fun while they’re doing it).
Professional writers might find they can discard many bad habits carried around since grade school. After re-reading the guidelines, who knows, some of the pros might find a new idea or two to incorporate in their own work.