Grammar is overrated

Grammar is overrated

May 13, 2021 By Karen Conlin Resources

First, take some deep breaths. I was just trying to get your attention.

You’re a professional editor, or you intend to be. But if I say “past tense continuous subjunctive in the third,” what happens? Do you nod knowingly? Or do you shiver and glance around to see if anyone else is as lost as you at this moment?

This is why I say grammar is overrated. You can be an excellent editor without knowing what that phrase means. Perhaps you understand parts of it: “past tense” for sure, likely “continuous,” and probably “subjunctive.” But what’s that “in the third” business? Or, you might be enough of a grammar guru to know exactly what each term refers to.

But you don’t have to know it to be an excellent editor.

Knowing the basics is enough. That grammar and syntax you learned in school will serve you just fine. I’m talking about the rules of language here. Subject, verb, agreement, referent/antecedent, adjective, adverb, phrase, clause (independent and dependent), predicate, and so on. What I’m not talking about is the tombstones, the non-rules, the chestnuts well-meaning teachers passed on that have nothing whatsoever to do with grammar: “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Never split an infinitive.” “Never start a sentence with ‘because.’ ” Nonsense. Nor am I talking about usage (the way people use words, both in writing and speech). But I’ll stop here before I digress.

You’ve known grammar since you learned to communicate. We all learn the grammar and syntax of our birth language without going to school. We’re immersed in it. Some of us pay more attention than others, enjoy it more, and we go on to become editors and writers. We roll around in words, play with making them connect, break those connections and make new ones—and keep learning without knowing it’s happening.

This is why, when you’re working on a project, you know instinctively when something isn’t right. You can hear it in your head. Do you know the precise term for it? Maybe so (“That’s a misplaced modifier/dangling participle”), maybe not (“This syntax sounds off to me”). As long as you know the basics—and I include dangling/misplaced modifiers in that category—you’ll be fine. You can still explain to your client what’s wrong and show them how to fix it. At the minimum, you leave a comment about weird syntax, make a suggestion (using your understanding of how syntax works, even if you don’t have highfalutin terms to go with it) for a replacement, and keep going. 

You know what you need to know already. You can learn more, of course, but don’t let anyone tell you you have to. You know enough right now.

Oh, and that term I threw at you earlier? If I had been teaching grammar, I would have put a textbook example in front of you. (Like the previous sentence.)

Grammar is Overrated was originally published in Tracking Changes (Winter 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash.

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