What You Can Do Once You Know Grammar

Doing Grammar CoverI was thrilled upon reading the final chapter of Max Morenberg’s Doing Grammar. He reaffirmed what I have been trying to explain and wrap my head around for a very long time: grammar is used not just for correctness but to indicate a certain style or mood.

How sentences are punctuated and how they are written sets a tone for the piece. Morenberg provides several examples of this. One of my favorites is his example from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

“Cohn is used by other people, especially women. So Jake often talks about him in passive constructions, in order to emphasize the fact that Cohn seldom acts on his own but is acted upon. Here are several sentences… from the first chapter.

… [Cohn] learned [boxing] painfully and throughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. He… was married by the first girl who was nice to him. [Cohn’s] divorce was arranged… [Cohn] had been regarded purely as an angel…. He had been taken in hand by a lady who hoped to rise with the magazine. … Cohn never had a chance of not being taken in hand.

Hemingway could have easily made each of these constructions active… You have to believe Hemingway chose the passive versions to emphasize… Cohn’s dependence on others for guidance,” (Morenberg, 215).

Morenberg makes the point that even those who consider themselves good students of grammar – those who know where the commas go and how to use an apostrophe correctly – have more to learn and can benefit from an analytical study of sentence constructions; that everyone can benefit from parsing sentences. I took so much away from Doing Grammar thanks to Morenberg’s approach. If any author or poet finds studying grammar wasteful should merely be presented with Hemingway’s previous passage and presented with the questions of why it is so effective.

Morenberg’s other point that really hit home for me was his discussion of how better writers are able to match sentence structure with content. In order to keep a passage moving along, the author needs to employ a variety of appropriate sentence structures.

For instance, a passage that features the same sentence structure over and over again, “My dog was the best. My dog was brown. The dog ran fast. The dog has a weird skill. The dog shelled peanuts. It made me laugh,” the passage is choppy, no fun to read and, therefore, is a weak passage. But if a variety of sentence structures and creative grammar is used, the pacing and writing style is severely improved:

“My dog had a unique character. Like other dogs, he was brown; he ran fast. But he also had the weirdest skill that always made me laugh: he could shell peanuts.”

The passage flows much more smoothly. You get a sense of the pacing the author wanted you to take. The passage seems more thoughtful rather than like a list.

Without studying how to use correctly a variety of sentences, it is nearly impossible to conscientiously make bold stylistic choices in your writing. Once you can “do grammar,” even if you think you’ve already “learned enough,” you become a better writer, a better student of literature and a better speaker.

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