The Skill List Project: Learning to Love Grammar

This is another blog post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at another fundamental building-block of writing: grammar.

Making Sense

Grammar prevents you from tripping over your own feet. The point of grammar is to make your words make sense. This operates on (at least) two levels:

  • For readers: Grammar mistakes are like potholes—they make sentences bumpy and hard for readers to follow. If mistakes are serious, readers may even misinterpret what you’re saying; they have to guess who’s doing what to whom, and they may guess wrong. Even if readers can figure out what you mean, they’ll likely decide it’s not worth the trouble. Poor grammar is apt to make people think, “This writer isn’t very smart.” That’s seldom the message you want to send.
  • For yourself: Sloppy grammar often goes hand-in-hand with sloppy thought. If, for example, your nouns and verbs don’t agree, you may not be envisioning the scene very well; otherwise, you wouldn’t confuse your words. When you can’t state something grammatically, you probably don’t understand it well enough to convey it to other people.

Of course, fiction-writing is an art and you may occasionally make an artistic decision to use sloppy grammar. For example, dialogue between characters is often “ungrammatical”; few of us speak in complete well-formed sentences 100% of the time. You may also choose to use “ungrammatical” constructs for effect—sentence fragments, for example, can deliver a snappy punch in the right place and time. However, it’s easy to overdo such tricks unless you know what you’re doing. Even when you’re writing in an informal tone of voice, you want your prose to run smoothly and hang together. For the most part, that means good clear grammar.

Infinitives and Gerunds and Participles, Oh My!

But is it necessary to know the technical details: the pluperfect tense, the objective case, the subjunctive voice (or is it a mood)? I suppose it’s not absolutely essential—some people may be able to write grammatically without knowing the correct terminology—but what would we think of carpenters who didn’t know the right names for their tools? How much confidence would we have in a computer programmer who said, “I don’t really know the rules of JavaScript, I just kind of wing it”? And if a gardener never bothered to learn the names of various flowers, wouldn’t we think something was wrong? Wouldn’t we consider these people to be lackadaisical about their jobs?

I know grammar can be complicated—I studied Latin for five years, and nothing beats Latin for making you aware of what a mare’s nest grammar can be—but finicky details matter. If you don’t know what the subjunctive is, how can you use it correctly? If you don’t know what the pluperfect is, how can you write a flashback? Besides, writers should want to learn how words go together, even when the concepts are difficult.

There are plenty of good books to help you. As a starting point, there’s always the Old Reliable: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. My favorite version is the one with illustrations by Maira Kalman, but any edition will do. Every library has a copy, and it’s a quick read. Strunk & White isn’t perfectly suited to writing fiction—it’s aimed more toward essays and nonfiction pieces—but it’s still worth reading (and rereading) for its sheer common sense and levelheadedness.

The Elements of Style is a good start, but it doesn’t cover grammar in depth. For that, my favorite textbook is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, a compendium of her books The Transitive Vampire (on grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (on punctuation). Not only does Ms. Gordon cover all the bases, her examples always make me laugh, in a Bulwer-Lytton Contest sort of way. (Sample sentence demonstrating the pluperfect: “She had never pondered anything besides her fingernails before she met the troll.”)

As usual, however, the only good reference book is one that you’ll actually use. Go to the grammar section of the library, see what books are available, and find one that appeals to you. Read it carefully, so you’ll never have to worry about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and all those other slip-ups that open up potholes in your sentences.

Other Suggestions?

Now once more, I turn the podium over to you. How important do you think grammar is, and how can you go about improving it? (Does anyone diagram sentences anymore?) In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: punctuation and other persnickety perils.

Filed under For Novelists, language, learning to write, reading, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Well, you can learn how to use the subjunctive correctly by reading enough to absorb it unconsciously, but it’s better to know the rules. For one thing, it helps you talk about it. For another, a formal introduction to all the things you can do with the English language helps you remember them when you are trying to vary your sentence structure.

    I particularly advise those who are going to critique the writings of others to either avoid the terms “passive voice” and “run-on sentence or learn what they mean. Hint: “passive voice” does not mean “there’s not much happening”. “Run-on” does not mean “long.”

  2. 2. James Alan Gardner

    Good point, Mary. It’s annoying how some people will condemn a piece of writing as ungrammatical, when it isn’t. (Sometimes the only problem is that the writing goes over those readers’ heads.)

  3. 3. Douglas Hulick

    I actually walked away from Strunk & White many years ago, when I stopped writing primarily for academia. While there are useful passages, a good portion of the advice seemed either stilted or dated in some ways, and less applicable to fiction (or, at least, the kind I was reading and writing) than other forms.

    I came across this piece last year (, which does a good job of pointing out some of the issues I had with S&W. I don’t agree with all of the essay, but I think it pokes some needed holes in the cloak of venerability that has come to surround “Elements.”

    I do agree that a knowledge of grammar is an important tool in this business; but I tend to steer people away, rather than toward, S&W when asked anymore.

    (I do appreciate the mention of “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire”, btw; that one slipped by me and is on my ‘to get’ list now. :) )


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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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