Why Grammar is My Jam (and Other Musings)

This summer, the Writing Center crew took on the challenge of editing, polishing, and in some cases, totally revamping each of our 90+ quick reference flyers (a.k.a. handouts). Those of us who worked during the summer months divided the handouts into categories and went about the tedious business of improving their readability and style, one by one. My category was grammar.

To some of you, spending a summer editing and re-working 20 grammar fact sheets probably sounds like a death sentence. But to me, it was a blast. Grammar is my jam, and I want to tell you why.

But first, I want to borrow a John Green quote for dramatic effect…

“I fell in love with [grammar] the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

If you’re anything like I was at the start of my love affair with grammar, you probably see the finer points of grammar as an impossible art form. I used to look at grammar the way I looked at Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.

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If painting isn’t really your bag of chips, you’re probably thinking that painting something like this would be impossible. From far away, it looks like a masterpiece, (and it is; Monet was a brilliant artist). But if you’ve ever looked at an impressionist painting like this one up close, you know it’s kind of a mess. You know it’s a (seemingly) scrambled series of independent brush strokes that somehow work together to produce a coherent image. When I look at this painting closely and think about Monet carefully placing each stroke of paint, I can see an important truth.

Most elements of writing (and painting and life in general), including grammar, can be broken down into two parts: the process and the product. The process of baking a cake (cracking eggs, pouring mix, and so on) is different than the product of baking a cake (a happy belly). However, it is not entirely separate. The product, in most cases, depends on the process. The product is the dependent clause, if you will, and it can’t stand alone.

I’ve always loved the product of grammar: clear and proper speech and writing, but I never realized that the product was dependent on a specific process. It all seemed so randomized and haphazard.

So here’s the part that happened slowly: I actually took the time to learn the process. I took an introductory linguistics course at DBU, where I was exposed to the technical aspects of language construction. I must have diagrammed about 27726852 sentences that semester, and by the end of it, I could finally see how the “brush strokes” of noun phrases and modal auxiliaries and all of the technical grammatical stuff worked together to make sentences and paragraphs and pages. And all at once, I realized that the coherent image of language is the product of specific grammatical processes.

We may not all be Monets of language. Our writing may be more like a color by numbers than an impressionist masterpiece. But the important part is recognizing that there is a process.  There are neat little boxes and compartments and categories where things fit, and that fact just makes my heart happy.

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So if you want to take the time to learn some of the processes of the mystical thing we call grammar, even just to impress your friends by being able to explain what a dangling participle is, feel free to check out our freshly edited grammar handouts online (at http://www3.dbu.edu/uwc/flyers.asp) or visit the Writing Center in person.

Maybe you’ll fall in love too.


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