If there was a moment in graduate school that dismayed and hurt me more, I can’t think of anything worse than the day my first seminar paper was returned.
To see that big green F — ironically green pens were used to grade papers because green ink was supposed to be less antagonistic than red — at the top of the page and all those inserted green commas — my paper looked like it had grown a football field. And I was Tom Brady watching the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl victory while I sat helplessly and forlornly in the middle of the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Defeated not by linebackers and a last-second touchdown pass, but by flawed argumentation and grammar.
I dropped the course immediately.
But, I didn’t let the F end my graduate career, no more than a Super Bowl loss has ended Brady’s career. I refreshed my grammar rereading some basic composition texts and the goat text for most writers — The Elements of Style.
For me then — and since — grammar mattered.
Do you really have to grasp every element of grammar to be a great writer? Spelling seems to be a bugbear for many. There are of course the legends: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently couldn’t spell and Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways — that, of course, was before spelling in English had become formalized.
And there are, of course, experimental works of genius like the unpunctuated last chapter of Ulysses — but Ulysses is an exceptional piece.
What about commas? Does Cormac McCarthy really know where the commas, or periods for that matter, go in passages like this from All the Pretty Horses:
“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies …”
And so on for another quarter of a page until the sentence/paragraph comes to a full stop. So what? Does this evocative lyrical piece in McCarthy’s signature Faulknerway style need commas or conventional punctuation? Clearly like Joyce, McCarthy is trying to show us the unconscious flow of the mind, of consciousness, of a dream state in this case. Where, exactly would you punctuate it? Still, if he’s trying to evoke a dream state, why does he keep reminding us this is a dream by repeating the phrase “in the dream”?
And, of course, as you’re reading this post, many of you might ding me for sentence fragments or using colloquialisms like “goat” for “go-to”. And, if you are like a recent editor of mine, you’ll cringe until your spine snaps to see me begin sentences with conjunctions. “And” at the beginning of a sentence particularly bugged him.
Probably as much as I was bugged as an editor when a writer of mine couldn’t name the parts of speech, and yet wrote well. Another writer couldn’t spell well and often wrote cringe worthy sentences, but was a great reporter. She got the details and great quotes. And with some great editing, won an award for feature writing.
Still, for me, grammar matters. The trauma of a green F sticks with me. It makes me check and double-check my copy and makes me fierce editor. All writers should know the basics, as Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools.
Even if you aren’t a professional writer, clear, generally grammatically correct writing affects communication no matter the field. At the very least, there is a utilitarian necessity for clear writing.
“Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money,” Clark writes. “They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.”