On Writing - Why Don't I Still Understand Grammar?
This is the first of a series of articles I'm writing for Veracity Magazine* - and was originally published in December 2022.
I’m feeling like a fraud right now. A little over a year ago I joined Verulam Writers after finally realising that the itch I’d been desperately avoiding scratching was actually my desire to write creatively. Joining a group who shared in this fascination and enjoyment of the written word seemed like a no-brainer. I’d be inspired, receive helpful critique, make friends and advance my writing skills (and maybe even find a way to create a new career from this love of writing). What I didn’t realise is that whilst I have been writing – seemingly competently – for several decades now, I actually know (or remember) very little about the rules of writing and the use of the English language. So this series of articles is going to be about my bumbling through my newly discovered writing journey; raising questions about punctuation, grammar and format – and wondering why I can’t seem to recall learning anything about adverbs, nouns or the Oxford comma. Oh, and I might provide some challenge to the preconceived ideas about what “proper” writing is.
I don’t suppose I’m alone when I say I can’t really remember how I learnt to write – sure I vaguely recall those special Berol handwriting pens – or the funny grips that could be slid down a pencil to make sure your fingers were in the right position whilst tackling cursive handwriting. I certainly remember the scrawling mess I made as I tentatively etched my name on a thousand works of finger-painted art (mainly because every now and then, my mother fishes one of my earlier artistic efforts out of the loft). I can also vividly recall Spanish GCSE language lessons, where verbs and tenses would be drilled into us on a weekly basis (a pointless exercise as all I can manage to say now is “two ham sandwiches and a beer please”). But I can’t remember a single time when, in any kind of English class, I was taught about what an adjective, proper noun or adverb actually was (even now, I’m pretty sure that I only know what a pro-noun is because the important part it plays in the conversation about gender identity - but I really can’t wait to see if other social issues are going to be the reason that I learn about what a subordinating conjunction is).
‘Love, love is a verb. Love is a doing word’ famously sang Massive Attack and there are times when I wish they had created a whole series of songs around language as some kind of learning aid. These types of songs do exist - specifically targeted at children on YouTube - and I have dropped down that cheery and saccharine hole in the name of research (ok yes - actually in the name of my own self learning) and now my head is full of the most random song lyrics (when it really should be filled with festive Christmas classics). I am definitely in a better place in my understanding than when I started writing this piece - and I suspect that just by reading through dictionary definitions and listening to raps by MC Grammar, the lessons on language I MUST have sat through have been dug out of the back part of my brain where I store all the knowledge and information that I class as “stuff you just know”. I guess I do have one question still. Does it matter that I don’t fully know how to describe each of these components of language? After all, I’m managing to write and express coherent sentences. I don’t think anyone has ever pulled me aside at work and informed me that my use of adjectives in my emails is overzealous (and if they ever do, I’ll admit that it’s my attempt to make payroll and employment contracts sound more exciting). I think it’s far more important that I know for times when my writing is critiqued - so I can respond and adjust accordingly. But if there is a time when I don’t understand, then I just need to pull on my big girl pants and admit it - and in my head repeat the appropriate MC Grammar rap. All together now – ‘When I say noun, you say name, place, thing. When I say noun, you say name, place, thing.’
* Veracity Magazine is the in-house magazine created by Verulam Writers. Click here to read more