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Do you need to be a great grammarian to be a great writer?

I have to admit I am not the perfect grammarian. When I write, I often “wing” such things as commas and semi-colons. Later, when I go back over my work, I often chuckle at the silly and unlikely places I’ve stashed a comma.

Granted, as writers, we need to have a good understanding of our language but I don’t think we need to obsess over it. That’s what editors are for, right?

I love what author Joan Didion has to say about grammar:

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.
You don’t tell it.”

For more on Didion’s thoughts about ego, grammar, and the impetus to create check out

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes! I completely relate to the phrase, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” I had little interest in English until I discovered writing and by then most of my learning was behind me. In college my Freshman Comp teacher called me into her office to praise a paper I’d written. She then went on in grave, technical detail about all that I’d done right. Apparently my expression was blank, for she suddenly stopped and said, “You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, do you?” I cringed and replied, “A little…” Anyway, she went on to explain why I was able to write as I do without possessing a deep understanding of grammar and her analogy was the same as the one here. Too, my outlook is aligned with this quote.

    August 14, 2013
  2. When I was acting as the secretary for my husband’s motorcycle club, I once put a comma in the wrong place in our newsletter. Because of this misplaced comma, half the motorcycle club met at the wrong location for an outing! So grammar is pretty important when communicating to the masses.

    If you’re just writing a message to friends on FB, not so much. But when you have a large audience, you better know your stuff or you can look pretty foolish… 😉

    August 16, 2013

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