How bad is my grammar, anyway?

This is not about any of my usual subjects. It’s not about addiction, recovery or my sceptical criticism of 12-step addiction recovery programs, and it’s also not about atheism in any way. No, today I’m thinking about grammar.

I stumbled onto these 5 tips for editing your own work. I do like the meme used at the top of the page, because I identify with hating that feeling when I use the same word twice in succession, then need to think of a synonym to avoid the obvious repetition. (But I only try to avoid it within the same paragraph.) But otherwise, it is unclear what the purpose of the article is until you read it. (Bad form. The preview displayed the meme, not the purpose of the article.) It seems to be about tips and tricks to prevent making common grammar mistakes. Since the article’s preview misrepresented what it was about, I feel obliged to criticize. To summarise briefly:

  1. Let your writing rest for a few hours or days.
  2. Read your writing in a new format.
  3. Read your writing out loud.
  4. Read backwards. (The paragraphs, presumably.)
  5. Use Grammarly to find and avoid mistakes. (And then they mention a few common errors, minus the one I truly despise: the split infinitive.)

Let your writing rest for a few hours or days

That’s the only one of those tips that I kind of apply. Kind of, not really. When I have an idea, I like to write it while it’s fresh. That means banging it out quickly… literally banging as I am hard on keyboards. Then I like to publish online immediately. But my posts aren’t always publically visible right away, so if I have free time I edit them online. And sometimes I do find terrible errors, like the other day when I substituted inert for innate. It’s one hell of a malapropism, thanks to the difference in meaning between the two words. That one really embarrassed me.

None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, and when you start writing (for example a blog – assuming you are like me and not a professional writer), you will make mistakes. That’s normal. But with practice, i.e. just by writing without actually trying to be a better writer, the number of mistakes are reduced. You shouldn’t have to proof-read and reread everything you write, or delay your publishing it online just because there may be one or two gaffes. Write more slowly if you must, but the aim should be to write quality first time without having to revisit everything. I like to reread a paragraph immediately after writing it, and move onto the next only when I am happy. Then if I want to improve it and have time later, doing so is a choice, not a necessity.

(Some days and some pieces of writing are easier than others. Sometimes I write it in one sitting; I’m happy and I publish. Sometimes, like this awkward post, it doesn’t work that way. It’s live, publishing tomorrow, currently on revision 15. After I finish adding this line, it will be revision 16, and I hope I’ll be happy then. To be clear, those revisions were not corrections – they were improvements – a rephrasing here, an addition there…)

Read your writing in a new format

That’s way too much trouble. I see past the format anyway. It’s just words on the screen, and I may choose to switch to HTML view in my writer application because I want to insert a line-break in the middle of a line for effect. Or maybe, though rarely these days, I may want to insert some custom inline CSS around a paragraph – change the font, the alignment, the line-height, the indentation, the justification and so on. Since I don’t host my own blog and don’t have access to the style sheets, inline CSS is the only way I can do that. But when reading, I just see words, not format.

Read your writing out loud

Why? I don’t need to read it aloud to see that it flows properly, or discover that I edited a clause too much until it evolved into something other than initially intended, but left a fragment of incomplete sentence in the process, or started a long run-on sentence and then got side tracked into never finishing it. Besides, I read horribly out loud.

While reading aloud may point out where the words don’t flow so smoothly, there is another aspect to my writing (and maybe yours too): Sometimes I break the flow on purpose. When I decide that some point I made is important, there’s more than one way to emphasize it. Italics work in some cases, but sometimes, parenthesis breaks the flow in just the right way to force you to read a fragment more than once. (It’s not nice and I try not to do it too often. Note that this use of parenthesis does not break the flow. It introduces an additional point.)

Read backwards

Fuck off.
Just fuck off.

Not you, dear reader… Often, but not always, my paragraphs are meant to be read in the right order. Sure, reading the paragraphs backwards or in some random order might draw my attention to errors that I gloss over as I read what I intended to write rather than what I actually wrote, but that’s way too much trouble.

Also, if I read backwards, I may decide to improve the choice of words used, forgetting that the selection was deliberate relative to previous paragraphs. I don’t do that a lot, but I do sometimes… For example, begin or end successive paragraphs with exactly the same line in order to create humour (a running joke) or maybe a sense of urgency. I haven’t done that for ages, but still…

Use Grammarly to find and avoid mistakes

That might be useful, but it wouldn’t find malapropisms, my most common error. And they don’t mention split infinitives, which happen to be one of the errors I hate reading in others’ writing. What about the rules of concord? People fuck up verb/object agreement all the time and nobody seems to care. (I do.) However, the rules of concord are tricky when you have complex clauses combined with subjects that are singular yet appear to be plural (We all get those wrong), and the rules have exceptions. I wonder if their grammar engine can detect all the possible errors, or if they omitted that functionality because of the potential for false positives? I also found this page listing common errors. (They’re all trivial errors that I’d expect a young teenager to learn avoiding. Do people really make those mistakes? I don’t.)

Aside: Regarding the common errors, when did dangling/misrelated participles get renamed to “dangling modifiers”? I liked the old name… years ago there was even a Mad Magazine joke that played on the name, the original name, not the new one. And since when is passive voice an error? It’s a choice; sometimes the object deserves more attention than the subject.


Lastly, grammar rules, just like all other rules, are made to be broken when breaking them works. I don’t choose to do so often, but sometimes rules need to be ignored completely. I can’t remember when last I did deviate from the rules deliberately, but I have done so. (Actually I think it was a split infinitive, ironically one of the rules I hate seeing broken. I liked the way the words flowed and chose to break the rule… maybe because it involved alliteration or a wordplay that would have been less effective had I followed the rules.) I also sometimes write sentences that are too long when it works and suits the tone of the piece of writing.

I happen to care about getting grammar right. (English is my first language, and the only language I really care for, so I take pride in the way I use it.) But I don’t care to take much trouble in doing so because I am lazy… If you struggle with common errors, maybe you need to read more. It’s not that difficult. Or am I wrong and my grammar is not as good as I think it is?

It’s cool that online tips and tricks exist for so many subjects. They exist even for subjects that are impossible, like how to project your spirit (which probably doesn’t exist) out of your body, and how to develop psychic powers, even though psychic powers are not real. But when the tips and tricks seem to be a list of exceptions to the norm rather than the norm (like those grammar tips and tricks which I find will mostly not be useful to me), what is their use? They’re like contrived motivational messages, which seem to impart wisdom until you really think about them. Who is the target audience anyway? If you’re writing anything much, you should have a good enough grasp of grammar to be able to break the rules for effect occasionally. If you don’t know the difference between there and their, then and than, or you’re versus your, no amount of tips and tricks will help you, and you have no business writing anything anytime anywhere anyhow anyway.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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