Brain shut off: Basic English 101

“It is the writer’s job, if he cannot write a masterpiece, at least to avoid writing junk.” —Robert Giroux

Let’s face it, your brain can shut off. That stuffed uncomfortable feeling that gives way to a headache. Usually caused by boring lectures, way too much information or badly presented classes. Rarely do we seek this out on our own.

I’m brushing up my Shakespeare. Fine, I’m taking a class on English as a refresher. A badly needed refresher. It’s been a long time since I diagrammed a sentence and if I remember correctly, I ran giggling out of that last English class I had to take in High School. College English was a different world. Today, my poor stuffed head with headache 101 starting to reach epic proportions is facing verbs. You remember those don’t you? Yeah. Those. And we only covered finite verbs. God help me. Maybe if I bang my head off the desk it would feel better. All those terms: finite, transitive, intransitive, voice, tense, mood, auxiliary, linking, gerunds… Should I go on or do you want part of my crying towel?

After watching the #AskELJames fiasco, the idea should have sunk in that we do need to know how to write. Yes, a lot of writers get away with badly formed sentences, I did point out one publisher who ignores editing in my last post. But if you want more than a flash in a pan, you have to learn this crap. There I said it. Crap. Needful crap.

What dawned on me through all this was English is how we communicate our self and our experiences to others. This is assuming you are an English speaker, feel free to substitute in your language if you aren’t. Your inability to express yourself in a common manner leaves your audience to guess what you really meant by that. Not a good thing even if you aren’t a writer.

The goal of writing is clear, concise communication between two or more individuals. Even the most purple prose writing should be able to convey a message, an image. If you have no clue how to write, how the devil are you going to do that? We aren’t born knowing how to speak our language, we learn it from our environment. We figure out rapidly that “Me cookie” might get you one from Grandmother, it damn well won’t get you one from the bakery and modify our communication.

One of the questions raised by the class was teaching grammar to children. By 4th grade, we were diagramming sentences. How many of you can do that? Admittedly, we do have our regional accents and phrases but we also don’t have anyone staring at us as if were were the creature from the black lagoon meanwhile trying desperately to figure out what the hell we just said.

I’ve been told my writing is clean. At the same time, I know it is lacking. I knew more as the 4th grader diagramming that sentence than I do now. I learned structure, word order, functions. I may not remember all of it, but I can produce a readable sentence. From what I’ve seen from some “writers”, I’m damn lucky. I owe that to my teachers took an hour out of the day to teach us English Grammar. You did drills. Eventually you figured it out. I’m looking for exercise books now for the class.

If you want to be a writer, you do have to worry about this and if you don’t know or understand it, you have to learn it. Writing takes you from point A to point B. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in. Point A to Point B. If you go from A to B via Tulsa, Oklahoma, you lost.

Flowery floundering sentences suck. The sentence should convey exactly what you mean to say and present a clear image. No, you don’t have to recite how you form a gerund and how it works but you should have enough knowledge to realize when you just screwed the pooch. You don’t want your audience to start giggling in the middle of your fantastic reveal scene where she finally has nerve enough to tell the hero that she loves him. Or like the last book I read. It was supposed to be a tense action filled scene but I started laughing and couldn’t stop. The writer screwed the pooch.

If you don’t understand the basics, you run that risk. It’s your choice. Will James be taught 100 years from now? Yeah. But do you really want to be used as an example of how bad writing can be and still get published? Or as how a “Fad can sell anything” in a media 101 class?

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3 thoughts on “Brain shut off: Basic English 101

  1. Heh. gerunds used to be one of my banes in writing. I finally learned to elimitnate most of them when I write. At least I”m slowly learning the different verbs in WW, whcih is the perfect place for me to learn. I doubt I could handle going back to school and sitting through a lecture

    1. I’m taking English Grammar and Style on edX. The class is out of New Zealand and it’s much easier to understand than the one I had based in the US. I like the lecture because I can stop it, take notes, and research if I need to.

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