Ever since a long forgotten bunch of 13th Century monks got together at the local Ramada Inn and held a conference to decide on grammatical issues and marks, signs and symbols, we’ve all been plagued with confusion. Grammar strikes fear in us all due to its confusing nature. It’s as bad as trying to read a publisher’s contract, a royalty statement, or a tax form. It is a frightful prospect and a brave thing I do here to even begin to tackle the enormity of the problem caused by these monks and perpetuated over generations of English teachers and linguists. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to challenge it here and now.
First the good news – such a thing as TRANSFORMATIONAL grammar holds promise; in fact, until I took a college course that taught transformational grammar, I truly felt like a grammatical cripple likely never to be able to pursue a career as a writer due to this defect in me. No English teacher I ever came into contact with did anymore than add to my confusion until I read up on transforms – basically the opposite of destroying perfectly healthy sentences via the diagramming process so familiar to us all in the fifties, sixties in schools everywhere. Diagramming basically took a sentence DOWN. Whereas transformational grammar demonstrated how a sentence was created in the mind from its kernel root two words to a 3-part, 4-part, or 5-part sentence of complex thought. Example:
A two word sentence that says it all: Jesus wept.
A transformation to that sentence dictates answering questions that immediately come to mind as in: Who is Jesus? What’s his problem or goal? Where is he? When is this happening? Why is he weeping? The mind leaps ahead of the pen to answer these questions and so Murphy’s Law is born – the epitome of Murphy’s Law is a misplaced modifier. Stay with me here. A modifier is the answer to any one of the above questions relevant to Jesus Rodriguez or Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s provide an answer and put it in the wrong place – Jesus wept at the age of thirteen.
We know how old Jesus is but it seems he is weeping at becoming thirteen because the “modifier\answer” is badly placed.
Let’s place the age in front: At the age of thirteen, Jesus wept.
We have just made a successful “transformation” of the sentence. Still, if we want to “construct” more answers to more questions relative to Who is Jesus and Why is he crying, we will need more “modifiers”, which are in essence “fragments” clipped from whole other sentences, such as: Jesus was aged thirteen at the time.
Or: Jesus’ last name was Rodriguez.
Or: Jesus cried for all mankind.
Our brains put together “transforms” as fast as any computer, until we have all the transforms we “mean” as in:
At the tender age of thirteen, Jesus of Nazareth, in dispirited agony, wept for all mankind.
Mrs. Calabash, my 4th Grade English teacher would have had us “de-construct” this perfectly executed “construct” of a complex sentence. Transforms celebrate the “creation” and “imagination” put into this sentence and would not think to de-construct it by diagramming it. Suppose we wanted to make this multi-complex sentence ALSO a compound complex sentence? We once again “transform” it at the higher-level thinking inside our minds where language is born by putting it this way:
At the tender age of thirteen, Jesus of Nazareth wept for all mankind, and as a result, Jesus’dispirited agony for us all has become a focal point in history and literature.
Go ahead, make my day…diagram the hell outta that sentence. Diagramming was for this young author a painful experience, and one I did not fully understand on many levels, not the least being that it made me feel uncomfortable to “destroy” a good sentence by ripping it apart for only one reason, to find the kernel or “roots” of subject and verb and object:
Finally, a grammar that worked for me, and honestly, until I made a conscious decision to drop all fear of grammatical pedantic nonsense created by the monks and perpetuated by the “cabala” of English teachers who have somehow created a swamp of rules for us all and six names for every rule (predicate = verb; 24 uses of the comma or is that coma?) – until I dropped all FEAR and consciously told myself on re-reads and edits of my words that “If it sounds good and it makes sense, move on.”
Since shaking off the “shackles of GrammarScare”, I have taught the subject many times over. The best way to beat something is to have to teach it to others. And since ending my fear of grammar, I have written over 45 novels and am working on my 8th series.
Finally, get hold of any of John Langdon’s books on grammar and writing as they are in effect the Least YOU need to know in the easiest form, and he does not ask you to destroy sentences. For real fun with grammar, you might wanna go searching for The Transitive Vampire, a helluva tomb on the subject. But if nothing else, give some thought to the fact that Shakespeare had only four kinds of sentences in the English Language to work with and so do we:
Simple: Jesus wept for us.
Compound: Jesus wept for us, and then he picked himself up and dusted himself off.
Complex: At age thirteen, Jesus wept for us all.
Compound Complex: At age thirteen, Jesus wept for us, and then he picked himself up and
dusted himself off and started all over again.
The trick is to shuffle the deck, use all forms of sentences, and “transform” your thoughts into really, really cool sentences. Language is Thought; Thought is Language. Now what about those pesky grammatical marks? The Marks of Caine…we will have to cover another time, but suffice to say the marks like apostrophes, commas, exclamations, semi and full colons wanna be kept simple – there are not 24 rules for commas but only 4 or 5 for instance. Finally, there are only ten SINS of writing, and you are likely committing only a few at most.
In my online Knife Editing Service, I provide authors with these tools, and within the first 20-30 pages of a work, every writing ‘SIN’ an author is making is clearly delineated. One such sin is passive voice, another is too heavy a reliance on pronouns, for instance, while another author may start too many sentences with gerunds. Ninety-nine percent of authors who believe they have overcome passive voice problems haven’t. So if you really want to know what your most repeated writing sins are, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert W. Walker