Grammar is Not a Building Code

August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

There are a lot of grammar rants on the internet. Here’s mine:

My dad is an architect. (Fun fact, he’s been in the AIA—American Institute of Architects—since I was little, but I told my kindergarten friends he was in the CIA because I mixed up the letters and didn’t realize they weren’t the same thing). Once upon a work function, some of his coworkers performed a skit about building codes.

First, the architects stepped onstage and drew their plans for a building. In came the engineers and construction workers, who put the “design” together using various oversized wooden blocks as the architects looked on and directed.

Just when they stood back to admire their handiwork, the city inspectors showed up. To the increasing dismay of the architects, engineers, and construction workers, the city inspectors stalked around with their clipboards, scribbling notes and indicating various parts of the design that weren’t up to code and would need to be altered or removed. By the time they finished surveying, they’d had the effect of a jealous toddler going godzilla on his friend’s “town” of alphabet blocks—near-complete destruction.

Unfortunately, I think many of peers see grammar as a similarly intrusive set of arbitrary rules that continually hamper their attempts to express themselves. Just when you’ve designed a fabulous reading nook that with doors that slide open to convert the whole room into a psuedo-balcony, some stuffy editor comes along and forces you to slap on a hulking safety railing that ruins the view.

But grammar isn’t your building inspector; grammar is your engineer. It doesn’t force you to adopt an unneeded railing or height restriction; it tells you that without proper support beams, your back deck will progressively cant downward until fat Aunt Tammie goes out for a smoke and takes the whole thing down with her.

And it’s not just about avoiding mistakes. I still remember the first teacher I had who taught grammar as a set of tools instead of just rules. He explained that if you wrote a long sentence (not a run-on) and followed up with a short and sweet subject-verb statement, the reader would be momentarily stopped and contrast would create memorable impact. This completely changed the way I thought about it.

I think of grammar as a set of scientific laws: if you combine a negative with another negative, you get a double-negative. If you combine nitroglycerin and heat, you get an explosion. A double negative isn’t always bad, and neither is a nitroglycerin explosion—but both tend to work better for everyone involved when used with care and in the right context. Break the “rules” if you want, but know them first. (That being said, some mistakes just make you sound stupid in pretty much any context).

So here is the end of my rant. I hope it was as bespectacled, finger-waving and librarian-esque as you’d hoped. Grammar is your friend.


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§ 2 Responses to Grammar is Not a Building Code

  • Laura says:

    If you’re going to break grammar rules, your readers should know that you’re doing it deliberately and with a purpose. And the only way they’ll know that is if you adhere to the rules at other times. Like writing a sentence fragment. It can be effective when it’s surrounded by complete, grammatically correct, and properly spelled sentences.

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