Writing is Not Grammatical Analysis

As I was browsing through Strunk and White[1] for an upcoming article, I noted some examples of the “wrong”‘ way to write a sentence and the “right” way. And, of course, I agreed; even though I am not a “Strunk and White” man[2], it is hard not to agree with them on most matters grammatical. There is a very big difference between grammatical analysis and writing, however. Consider the following example from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Stunk and White.

Wrong: the French, the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese
Right: the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese

I know the second is grammatically correct, just as sure as I know there are times when a writer would rightly use the grammatically wrong construction.[3]

How can I say this? How can I defend it? Very easily it turns out. When I write a sentence, paragraph, article, or book, I just don’t care if the writing is grammatically correct. I just care that the writing works. For example, in a recent song, I wrote:

I know you need a little med advice
Your heart ain’t beating one or two or thrice

The issue isn’t that this is poetry and it is okay to play with words and syntax in poetry. I would do and do do the same thing in prose—I just can’t think of any examples at the moment. My point is, however, that while Strunk and White and Fowler and Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences and The Chicago Manual of Style are important to anyone who wants to write well, one must be willing to let them all go to hell. This is writing, not grammar school.

[1] I don’t mean to be cryptic. The book is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little). But everybody calls it Strunk and White—perhaps because there are many other books with this title (but none that I know of are about English grammar; they are about things like interior design and knitting) or because writers are a bunch of pretentious twats. On second thought: it is definitely because writers are a bunch of pretentious twats.

[2] Roy Blount Jr. wrote, “After Scott Simon interviewed me on NPR about whether the word ‘e-mail’ needs a hyphen (yes it does) [No it doesn’t! -FM], some listeners, including friends of mine, wondered why I had answered in the affirmative when asked, in passing, ‘Are you a drunken white man?’ Those listeners misheard. ‘Strunk and White man’ was what Scott said.”

[3] In this sentence “sure” is an adverb and does not need an “ly” to announce how I am using it!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Writing is Not Grammatical Analysis

  1. First, let me say that I would love to read a grammar book written by "Drunken White Man".

    Secondly–I’m a writer and a poet, but I am definitely not that interested in grammar for its own sake. I’m interested in not appearing ignorant as a human being while trying to communicate certain ideas, but for me, grammar is just a tool. It’s not fascinating in its own right; in fact, I consider it a bit of an annoyance to have to check my work for proper grammar all of the time. Then again, I find bad grammar, when it’s not intentional, very painful to read or hear. So maybe I’m more of a grammar snob than I’m willing to admit.

    In any case, really *good* writing is about being a good listener; being able to hear and mimic cadence and flow in dialogue, and having an intuitive understanding of sound and emotion interact. Good writers are alchemists; they can bend language into pure emotion, pure beauty, pure prayer. You can be flawless grammatically and still be a crummy writer.

  2. I like grammar in the same way I like mathematics. The thing about grammar though, is that it isn’t as pure as math. It is more like physics. Grammarians try to explain how language works. They don’t, like mathematicians, define how it works. I think this is the biggest misapprehension of people regarding grammar.

    I just bought a book called "Language Myths" which is a collection of essays on myths about language. The first if by one of the editors, Peter Trudgill. It is called, "The Meaning of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change." In it, he discusses the difference of meanings of the words "uninterested" and "disinterested." He makes a wonderful case that although the first people who used "disinterested" when they meant "uninterested" were doing it out of ignorance, they have ended up enhancing the language. The book is well worth picking up; it contains 21 myths.

    As to what you said about being a grammar snob: I am too. But I’m also not. For example, I would never correct someone who said, "I like Joyce, Hemingway, and most importantly, Steinbeck." However, I’ve known a lot of people who would. These are the same people who chastise me for ending a sentence with a preposition and starting a sentence with a conjunction. All I can think is, "So you learned a grammar rule and now you think breaking it is worse than violating one of the Ten Commandments." I’m not a great writer. Why do I start so many sentences with conjunctions? Because most of the great writers I really like do so. I’m just copying the greats–like all artists. And Steinbeck is a hell of a lot greater than Struck or White.

    PS: I am often a drunken white man; I’ll get right on that book.

  3. Frank as interesting as grammar isn’t, You made me interested in that post I happen to love the way you write. While we are on the subject of grammar Please don’t grammar nazi me on this post ;)

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