Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

What’s The “Best” Way To Learn “Proper” Grammar?

Everyone who reads regularly knows quite a lot about grammar, even folks who don’t think they do.

Of course, not everyone can state the rules of grammar; and; even those who can might disagree.

Every aspect of language changes over time—it’s a normal consequence of human social evolution.

If a writer were to conceive of a book written in the style of a young woman in the England of 1325, they certainly wouldn’t do their research with a recent book on grammar.

Then, of course, there are the language mavericks who bring consciously purposeful mutations into the flow of language evolution.

Naturally, there are places for “proper” grammar and places it would sound silly—just like wearing a tuxedo to a beach party.

Fiction is one space that lends itself to grammatical mutations.

In that regard, Martha Brockenbrough, in her role as Grammar Girl, explores grammar in fiction (including Jane Austin), noting considerations of each character’s unique expression and knowing the rules so you can break them effectively, in the article Bad Grammar :: Good Fiction. Here’s one cool sentence:

“I’d go so far as to say that correct grammar might even keep aspiring writers from publishing their work, and that correct grammar in the wrong place might diminish the reading experience.”

Then, there’s the consideration of how best to learn proper grammar even if you intend to twist it

One way is to read, as widely and deeply as possible. This supports my opening sentence: “Everyone who reads regularly knows quite a lot about grammar, even folks who don’t think they do.”

Another way is to read grammar books, at the risk of never finishing since you continually fall asleep

I wrote about yet another way in a post back in March, Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?

If you’ve never seen a diagrammed sentence, check these out:

I quoted Kitty Burns Florey in that March post, from an article she’d written for The New York Times. She’s written a follow-up article, Taming Sentences, where she says, about the first article, that she received, “…more than 300 comments (and close to 100 personal e-mails) in response…”.

Some love it, some hate it. Some saw value in diagramming sentences, some could care less.

Kitty, herself, had a well-balanced view:

“Obviously, I recommend diagramming…”

“…diagramming is not for everyone.”

“…it involves mastering not one skill but two: the rules of grammar and syntax and the making of diagrams…”

“Even if it enlightens us about the parts of speech and how to use them, it teaches us nothing about punctuation, and it can’t help with spelling.”

“Probably the best way to learn the technicalities of language and usage is not to diagram but simply to read books that are full of good sentences.”

And, the real kicker: “…it is like broccoli: it’s good for you only if you can stomach it.”


Whether you read voluminously, study grammar books, or learn diagramming, do visit Kitty’s last-linked article, if only to see how she diagrammed this sentence from Henry James’ The Golden Bowl:

“The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion — or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.”
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14 responses to “What’s The “Best” Way To Learn “Proper” Grammar?

  1. Simone Benedict June 21, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Definitely something to think about. I’ve recently entered into the writing gladiator arena with The Comma. I decided to take an on-line quiz because The Comma seemed to be winning. Surprising to me, I scored 90% even though I thought the quiz rather difficult. The one I missed was that modern convention does not require a period before a Jr., Sr., etc, i.e., John Smith, Jr.


  2. martinaseveckepohlen June 22, 2012 at 2:18 am

    In 1980 four German speaking countries (East and West Germany, Austria and Switzerland) formed a language committee with the two aims of modernizing spelling and punctuation and introducing the same rules in all four countries. After 1990 only three countires met. In 1998 the first step of the reform was introduced. Angry discussions arose, most adults were shocked. Since then the reform has been reformed three times. Luxemburg and the German speaking North of Italy have introduced the reform in 2005. While I sometimes wonder at my daughter’s spelling she keeps finding “mistakes” when she reads my old books :-)


  3. Tim Kavi April 22, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Great post (as usual). As far as good practice at diagramming while refreshing one’s learning about it, I found this to be useful.


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