Grammar god or goof?

Can you identify the parts of speech beyond nouns and verbs? Do you still remember how to diagram a sentence? Does the phrase dangling participle send you running for the hills? Do sentences that end with a prepositional phrase grate on your nerves like nails on a chalkboard?

Then you’re a grammar god.

These are the people that can wield “lay, lie, laid and lain” with the skill of a Kung Fu master and they’re great to have around when you need a good editor, but I suspect there are a lot of competent, compelling writers that could be classified as grammar goofs.

These writers are like musicians who don’t read music – they know what sounds right using their natural talents and instincts. They may not know the term, but they can pick out an example of poor subject/verb agreement.

The question for today is: Do you have to be a grammar god to be a great writer or is being able to hear the difference enough? Second question: Where do you go for grammar advice?


  1. says

    Hi Terreece:

    Interesting post.

    I have the slightest clue about grammar. But I’ve written books, make my living at my full time job as a writer/editor and make a pretty decent amount of extra money every year on the freelance side of things.

    But I couldn’t really explain what the past participle is, the gerund, the antecedent, this and that. Sure, I know the basics, and maybe I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture.

    Although I used to teach history and feel perfectly qualified to teach writing, I would NEVER want someone like myself teaching an English class. That’s just the way it is. But grammar and writing and editing – those are two entirely different things.

    So, I don’t think you have to be a grammar god to be a great writer. I doubt many of the best writers are such experts when it comes to explaining this and that, but they can write, and they can also edit with the best of them. That’s what I think.

    As far as good resources, the AP stylebook is great, as well as Elements of Style. I also enjoy the books by Bill Walsh and his Web site,

  2. Jess says

    If I’m not mistaken, there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase. You’re not supposed to end a setence with a preposition.

  3. krista says

    I know when something is incorrect and how to fix it, but I couldn’t use the technical terms to tell you exactly why it was incorrect. Does that make me a grammar goof?

  4. says

    Some of the rules I know, some things I know by ear. Maybe that makes me a demigod. Or maybe a demi-goof.

    Good writing, however, doesn’t always make good grammar, and vice-versa. For example, using “whom”, correct or not, sounds stodgy and ending a phrase in a preposition can sound less awkward than, for example, “I’ve made many grammar mistakes, for which I’ve paid the price.”

    It helps to know the rules, however, in order to break them effectively.

  5. says

    You know, to be honest, I don’t know the terms for many of the grammar areas. I wouldn’t know how to describe a dangling participle, because I don’t know what that means.

    But I sure as hell know grammar when I see it. To use your music analogy, it’s being unable to read the music but having perfect pitch and a perfect ear. I know when it’s wrong.

    So can I be a Goof God?

  6. says

    I don’t think of myself as a god of any kind, but I do like grammar quite a lot. I have a Master’s in Linguistics, I teach English, and I can not only explain about dangling participles, but I would love to clarify the whole question of restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses sometime if anyone would let me.
    In fact, I can tell you exactly why diagramming sentences is not useful.
    I don’t want to read things with grammatical errors. I think that grammatical errors interfere with SEO as well as reading enjoyment. I don’t think people who can’t proofread should get paid for writing, unless they’re prepared to pay editors to proofread for them.
    That doesn’t mean that they have to be able to explain all that. It’s a different skill set entirely. And I can assure you that nobody ever lets me talk about grammar at parties. That may in fact be why I still teach English even though I make my living as a writer: my students really want me to explain that stuff to them.
    Nobody else does.

  7. says

    For that matter, it’s not really forbidden to end sentences with prepositions anymore, either (grin).

    As to your question? I don’t think you need to be a grammar god to write well, but you need to know your way around a sentence. Irregularities can be fine, idiosyncratic, but when there are glaring errors, it makes me cringe–exactly like when the music is off key (James).

  8. says

    I’m not a grammar god, but I’m often asked to fix an ugly sentence for someone. I would never go to a book for advice on how to fix a sentence, but I find the classic writers can sometimes help.
    I’m the sort of person who remembers sentences verbatim, if I’ve read and liked them – and it could be from Rudyard Kipling or Dickens or Stephen King. When I’m really stuck I’ll try to pattern my sentence to fit their’s. Usually thats enough to figure out what’s wrong.

  9. says

    I’m part of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it crowd. And, even then, I’m bound to get **something** wrong at some point or another. I do keep a copy of the handy-dandy AP Stylebook at my side when I’m writing, and that helps when I’m feeling unsure about a grammar rule.

    Am I the only one, or does anyone else here have “aha! moments” days after writing a blog post (or whatever it is) and will go back to correct the grammar mistake?

  10. says

    I am going to have to apologize in advance for all of the people that I will offend with my elitist position.

    You have to be a grammar god.

    I actually have a section of my personal blog that is entirely devoted to grammar mistakes on major websites like MSNBC. This week they got the headline in one of their top stories wrong. It was changed, but what kind of editorial department lets that one ride? Seriously. You can’t tell me that MSNBC writers, web content or otherwise, aren’t paid well enough to care. I’m sure that they make a lot more than I do.

    I have made mistakes in the past, I am not perfect. I will own up to them and send a corrected copy without prompting if I notice it after the fact. The truth of the matter is that any grammar or spelling mistake makes you look unprofessional and sloppy and the client will notice in most cases. They will also probably not call you again or go lukewarm towards you over other writers. Frankly, I don’t disagree. As a writer your entire craft is about knowing your words and where to place them. If you don’t know grammar or couldn’t be bothered with a spell checker you shouldn’t be pursuing writing as a career.

    I don’t mean to sound harsh but I have seen so many websites (as I am sure you all have) with atrocious writing on them that I have to believe someone, somewhere is selling writing services without knowing the English language. I am sure that members of this community are not among them but that is my opinion.

  11. says

    If you don’t know basic grammer, you can’t be a writer. However you don’t have to be a total expert to be a writer either. It’s pretty easy to check a dictionary or some other grammer book to see what you missed or might be questioning yourself about.

  12. says

    I’m answering as an editor here, not a writer.

    1. If writers needed to be perfect at grammar, usage, style, and punctuation, there would be no such things as editors. Your job is to be creative, informative, and readable. Ours is to apply the final polish so your message gets through as clearly as possible to every reader. I can’t do your job very well, and I sure don’t expect you to do mine. Heck, there are non-native speakers of English who can hardly put an English sentence together who have expertise worth writing about. (Of course, they don’t usually try to make a living as writers.)

    2. The “rule” about not ending sentences with prepositions is one of the most-quoted when talking about grammar. The thing is, it’s not really a rule anymore. Most reputable style guides say that ending a sentence with a preposition is often preferable in terms of clarity and elegance. The same goes for split infinitives.

    3. Using the AP style guide is a great idea. The Chicago Manual of Style is also a great resource, depending on your genre. I wouldn’t use The Elements of Style because it is far from comprehensive and far from accurate. Strunk and White break their own “rules” left and right in it.

    4. Those of you who have said you have an ear for grammar are right; there are few “mistakes” in any of the comments. I firmly believe that everyone who has posted so far, including the opening post, has enough grasp of grammar to make a go of it in the writing field.

  13. Marie says

    And if you can’t spell grammar, you can’t be an editor.

    That was a joke. The point is that you must be a total expert if you want to be a good writer. Otherwise, you come across as less than perfect. When we have the luxury of spell-check and revision, there is no excuse for something less than perfect.

  14. says

    Terreece, glad I stopped by for this post. I hate when I let my grammar goof on me and some days I believe it can happen to the best of the best. It doesn’t make us bad writers. Money does not always produce a blockbuster movie and grammar does not always produce a good read.

    However, I do agree with Angela, what is up with the media. Even if they are hiring interns they should work a little harder to get it right. Isn’t it the big leagues for journalists?

  15. says

    I don’t think you have to be a grammar god to be a writer. However you do have to be conscious of grammar rules and do your best to rectify mistakes.

    As for me, I know when something is grammatically incorrect , but I don’t know the terms to explain it. I usually go to a writer friend for advice.

  16. says

    Ruth, your #1 is a great point. It actually makes me feel a little better to hear someone say that. I am not a grammar god, but I think a person who reads and writes a lot has a pretty good grasp of the language. I feel I do okay. However, this is the one area that I always question when it comes to my writing. I worry I don’t have the skill. It is nice to see that so many don’t view it as something we should be experts on.

  17. Ann G. says

    Realistically, grammar is one of those things where certain rules change. I do one job where I must follow the AP rules, another that demands Chicago and then a proofreading job that strictly follows Morson’s and One Word, Two Words, Hyphenate’s rules.

    I just go with the flow and always have books open to make sure I’m not mixing the guides up.

    I still remember reading a book once on grammar that said one of the world’s biggest grammar goofs comes from the phrase “just deserts.” I happened to catch this right after watching a television show on lousy television pilots and one of them the show was called “Just Deserts” and NBC railed them for not even being able to spell correctly.

    Deserts is derived from the word Deserves – so it is incorrect to say Just Desserts. I ended up going onto NBC’s forums and pointing out that they were in fact wrong and one of the upper level execs e-mailed me back stating they’d never heard such a thing and were shocked they were in fact wrong.

    Since then, I remain open to learning as much as I can about grammar.

  18. says

    I agree with Angel West that misspelling and grammatical errors look sloppy.

    In my opinion, what matters in not so much that a writer have the skills to explain or teach the why, when, and wherefore of every punctuation mark and structure. But a quality product is a quality product. In the world of writing, that means clear communication. In the end, that is why we have all those rules, right?

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