Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I am the Grammar Snob About Whom Your Mother Warned.

I know I've written quite a few blogs on grammar, but hey, I really do love it.

I was talking last night with a friend who is taking a grammar class this coming semester from the same teacher I took it from three years ago. He was rather excited to gain the skills to correct his roommates' grammar. I told him that class really only affected my knowledge of written grammar rather than spoken grammar. It was learning German that corrected my spoken grammar. German is, after all, the initial parent language of English, and our grammar is very similar.

In German, if you don't conjugate your verbs correctly, you may as well be speaking Norwegian ("cave man English", according to the aforementioned friend who happens to speak Norwegian). Verb conjugation is absolutely essential to being understood in German. In German there are clearly three parts to every verb. the verb for "have" is "haben" and the three participles are "haben, hatte, gehabt" while in English we have "have, had, had." The second and third participle are the same because the past and perfect tense are the same...? It's English--it doesn't have to make sense. But because they are the same, people get confused when it comes time to express something is present perfect ("have had") and especially past perfect ("had had") and even future perfect ("will have had"). Many native English speakers have no concept of the perfect tense and how to form it. That is why I frequently feel the need to step in them out.

Another huge consideration is preposition use. Germans don't use prepositions like we do. For example, they use "auf" which can be translated to "upon" for so many uses: "it depends" is "das haengt darauf" which is literally translated to "it hangs upon." I don't consider that to be intuitive for English speakers. But with that lurking in the back of my head, it is so much easier for me choose the correct preposition in English. I always stop to think "What does this preposition really mean?" before I put it in a sentence.

But for those of you lacking the German background, Melissa Donovan of Writing Forward gave some great tips in her latest blog post about incorporating good grammar into your daily life:
1. Stop Being Lazy – When you’re not sure if the way you’ve written a sentence is correct, take a couple of minutes to go look it up instead of either rewriting it or hoping for the best.
2. Invest in Writing Tools – These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style.
3. Make it a Chore – Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
4. Talk About It – Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers have interest in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar related issues is an ideal way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
5. Put it to Practice – Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature. When I learned that it wasn’t traditionally correct to end sentences with prepositions, I stopped completely until it was as natural as putting terminal punctuation marks inside of quotation marks.
6. Bonus! Don’t Be OCD – Well, you can be OCD if you want. I like to break the rules sometimes. Eventually, I returned to ending sentences with prepositions, but only when it was the best way to communicate an action or idea.
I've done many of these things without even realizing it (I think that comes from being an English major--I have a wider pool of people who readily engage in grammar discussions). As for the chore, might I suggest that simply reading and paying attention to words the writer uses and where they put them is sometimes enough to improve your own grammar. I am a strong believer in the idea that through reading can nearly all of life's questions be answered.

If you struggle with grammar, don't lose heart. It is a matter of practice and discipline, but it is completely worth it. The truth is, if you can use grammar correctly, you will sound much smarter than you probably actually are, and who doesn't want to sound smarter? I rest my case.


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