Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Tag Archives: Grammar

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.”

So

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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Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?


I have no doubt that the English language is always changing—usually extremely noticable in time-spans of centuries.

Still, grammar has remained remarkably stable—except for certain maverick creative writers.

Some folks gain the title “grammar nazi” while others leave all that boring stuff up to an editor.

Grammar is a branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology (and sometimes also deals with semantics).

I still remember slowly slogging through books on grammar but spending hours happily diagramming sentences.

If you’ve never seen a diagrammed sentence here are a few examples (images from Wikipedia):

If you’d like a good read about the history of sentence diagramming, check-out Kitty Burns Florey‘s article in The New York Times, A Picture of Language.

Kitty says: “The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y.”

Did you ever do sentencing diagramming?

Was it taught to you in school or did you learn it on your own?

Over the years, I’ve asked many folk if they’d heard of the technique but found very few who have

However, with many people considering self-publishing and simultaneously being unable to afford an editor, I thought I’d add a few links where you can learn it.

The first resource, called simply Diagramming Sentences, includes the download of a Power Point presentation so you can watch diagrams being constructed.

It begins with this quote by Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.

The last resource, 500 Sentence Diagrams, amongst many other aids, includes sentences diagrammed from Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Graves, Edith Hamilton, Henry Fielding, Thomas Wolfe, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Milton.

Hope these help :-)

If you explore this technique, I’d love to have you report your feelings in the Comments.

And, of course, if you learned it in the past, please let us know what you think in the Comments
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Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
For Private Comments, Email: amzolt {at} gmail {dot} com