Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#02: Your Grammar Is Eating The Neighbors

by Seanan McGuire

Welcome to the second of what looks dismayingly like it's going to be a series of fifty essays based on my fifty thoughts on writing. Because, y'know, it's not like I was doing anything else with myself in my copious amounts of spare time. Except for the part where, oh, wait, I DON'T HAVE ANY. Clearly my brain is trying to kill me. Please send help. If you can't send help, please send pumpkin cake, as it is direly needed. If you can't send pumpkin cake, well, enjoy today's topic. Namely:

Thoughts on Writing #2: Your Grammar Is Eating The Neighbors.

...what's sad is that this is actually nicer and less snarky than the first entry in this series. Just in case you'd wondered whether I was actually mellowing. The original thought:

The rules of English grammar were devised by an evil linguist who had a bone to pick with the adherents of the more traditional schools of the written word. They laughed at him in the academy, and we bastards are still paying today. You don't need to have a perfect grasp of the seventeen thousand (occasionally conflicting) rules to be a writer; that's what editors and proofreaders are for. At the same time, you can't just throw a bunch of words at the page and expect to have all your work done for you. Learn the basic rules of punctuation and grammar before you subject other people to your work. They can squabble over the Oxford commas at their leisure.


Let's begin.

English Is A Monster.

Those of us who grew up with English may not be consciously aware of what every 'English as second language' person in the world knows full well: English is hard. Our grammar is needlessly complicated, full of pit-traps and sneak attacks. Constructing a sentence in English is sort of like trying to snatch six specific garter snakes out of a nest. The nest has been buttered. Also, the snakes bite. Now, once you've been juggling garter snakes -- or speaking English -- for a few years, you can generally get the six snakes you want with a minimum of trouble. But they'll always be buttered, and they'll always have teeth.

We have a language built on the stolen bones of other languages. The people responsible for 'creating' English were basically playing Frankenstein, using spare parts to make something capable of smashing the local village. I use the term 'creating' loosely, because English wasn't created as much as it just, well, evolved. People looked up one day and realized that they were speaking this weird new language, and by that point, they were used to it, so they didn't stop. I mean, the nice thing about Frankenstein's Monster is that it's big, flexible, and pretty damn difficult to kill. You can always bring it back with a set of jumper cables and a car battery, and that's a useful trait to have in a monster, or in a language. The big thing to remember is that, at the end of the day, it may be friendly, but it's still a monster. There's always the chance that it's going to kidnap your wife, crush your neighbor, and go rampaging off down the street.

It is easier to be unclear in English than it is in almost any other language, partially because of its innate flexibility. There's a running joke on NCIS -- a television procedural -- about a foreign-born character misspeaking and mangling her idioms, because, ha ha, English is hard. Well, guess what? English is hard. Anyone who tells you that English isn't hard is either delusional or trying to lull you into a false sense of security. Possibly because their own personal monster of English is getting hungry...

Right, Get The Torches.

Put down the torch, hotshot: English may be a monster, but it has its uses. As I said before, it's big, flexible, and pretty damn difficult to kill. And it can express almost anything you want. This is a language that has so many wonderful words that we regularly allow old ones to fall out of common use, replacing them with shiny new words, like buying new parts for our monster. This is a language that we can use to knock down other people's villages. We just need to be certain that we know how to control it.

Now, I could pretend to be all-knowing and give you a lot of instructions on how not to split an infinitive and how to avoid overly complex sentences, but let's get real: I am not an English teacher. I'd just be parroting information out of books, and while I'd like to think that my parroting would be amusing, it wouldn't be any better than what's already out there. I do recommend that you pick up On Writing, by Stephen King, and Strunk and White's Elements of Style. One book will teach you basically everything you need to know about the strict rules of making your monster do what you want it to do. The other will teach you some handy tips about making your monster dance the hokey-pokey. Both are good things to know, and both are going to be a lot more useful to you than all the parroting in the world.

If you're really confused about the way that grammar works, take a class! Most community colleges offer basic English courses. Note that I'm not saying 'take a class that teaches you how to write' -- you'll do that, or you won't do that, based on your own needs and what you personally feel will help you grow as a writer. I'm saying 'take a class that teaches you about the language.' English grammar is the way it is because its creator was laughed at in university. Maybe if you go to university, you can learn how to stop laughing and start understanding why it felt the need to smash your barn.

I'm really enjoying this monster metaphor. Can you tell?

But My Grammar Is Good Enough For Teh Intarwebs!

...ow, my brain. Look: everything is good enough for 'teh Intarwebs.' That is, really, the beauty of the Internet. With the click of a button, you can become a published author. When I finish this essay, I'll be able to put it right up online. Bam. Now, being as I'm me, I'm going to proofread it and run it by a few people first, but I could publish it the second it's finished. No one's standing over my shoulder saying 'I think you spelled that wrong.' No one's going to smack me for splitting an infinitive, or for constructing a sentence so convoluted that my point gets lost in a forest of modifiers. Well, Brooke might, but that would be after the fact; the post would still be made, the words would still be out there. No one is grading the Internet.

The thing to remember here is context. Vixy and I regularly have entire conversations in LOLcat, and Shawn and I mostly just make incoherent dinosaur noises at each other via IM. That's totally fine. But I'm not going to read a novel written in either of those styles. 'Good enough for the Internet' doesn't actually mean that your grammar is any good; it just means that your personal equivalent of Brooke has not yet smacked you on the head and dragged you off to the Lagoon for a little remedial education.

I am very loose with language in my blogging, because it's my blog; I can be loose with the language if I want. I abuse punctuation freely and without qualms. I insert random capitals in the middle of my sentences for emphasis. I make up words. I use really big words without necessarily giving the surrounding context to avoid confusing my readers. Periodically, I devolve into LOLcat for no reason beyond 'I wanted to.' Now, the more I learn about grammar and punctuation, the less I do some of these things, just because I'm training myself out of bad habits. At the same time, there are things I used to do carelessly that I now do on purpose. I see the rules. I just choose to let my monster smash them.

When I'm writing fiction, or even serious non-fiction, I get a lot more careful with the way I word and structure things. I don't want to risk confusing and alienating people by mistake; I want to do it on purpose. I have people read and review me, and when I get the same critique from multiple sources, I tend to take little crash-courses in the way to make my monster work for my benefit. Nothing says 'learn how to control your monster' like being told exactly what it's doing wrong.

The Internet is where you can let your monster rampage. Everywhere else, you may need to give it a little training.

So I'm Basically Screwed.

Yes and no. No matter how much you train your monster, it's always going to be a monster. Nothing you or I or anyone else can do is going to change that. You could try writing in a different language, but that's going to raise a whole new set of problems.

At the same time, you can learn to control your monster, at least well enough that the people who do this professionally can recognize its potential and guide you along. Maybe you'll never develop a consistent approach to the Oxford comma, but if that's the only mess your monster's making, your line-editors are really unlikely to care. No one expects perfection. They just expect the house to still be standing when you and your monster leave.

Good luck, and remember, stay away from the castle.

© 2008 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.

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