Getting to Grammar

grammarIn her comment on The Grammar Hatchet Joyce used the phrase, “a constant reminder to consider people before grammar.” The interesting thing is that when students (or you or I or anybody else) write for an audience, grammar comes to the fore, naturally. 

Although I certainly don’t respond to student writing by talking about grammar first, I am constantly aware that students need to learn to write correct Standard English if they are to succeed in further education or in a job that requires them to write.  I find the best way to get people interested in learning about writing and proofreading and all things grammatical and mechanical and rhetorical is to give them an audience to write for.

I wasn’t surprised when it happened to my friend Sheila Gilhooly as I worked with her to edit and publish her book Mistaken Identity. When asked, I was happy to agree to get the stories ready for print. I have been listening to Sheila’s stories over many years, so when I got the first drafts of her stories, I recognized her voice in them, although they had been written without too much attention to punctuation and mechanics.

So when we looked at her work together the first time, I suggested hardly any changes to the wording, concentrating instead on changing the punctuation to support the voice. For example, I could hook a sentence fragment to the preceding sentence with a dash, and presto–no longer a fragment.

Sheila came to a renewed interest in all things editorial, however. I had been talking about The Elements of Style in connection with another project I’m working on. We bought two copies, one for her household and one for mine, and Sheila read it from cover to cover. As we worked on a final revision of her stories, she suggested changes based on her reading. One day when I suggested she might leave out a couple of sentences that were not needed to tell the story, she responded by quoting The Elements: “Do not explain too much,” and “Omit needless words.”

I’m sure Sheila hadn’t read a book about writing since her high school text books, but putting her own stories into print made her interested in how it was done.

Working with Sheila recently has reminded me of working with literacy/ABE/GED students. When I give them a safe environment to work in, when I respect and treasure their stories no matter what shape grammar and mechanics are in, when I offer them an audience, their desire to get things right grows. When they are making art from their lives, their interest in revising and editing blossoms. They pay more attention to how writing is done by the best writers because they want their own stories to shine.

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