Grammar Matters

I stood in front of the class while the Samoan football player with a full-ride to the University of Washington, the young woman whose family had fled Tehran, and the chair of the English department looked back at me.  “Today, we will be talking about comma splices,” I said.  “A comma splice is when you put a comma in the wrong place in a sentence.”

A comma in the sky . . . otherwise known as an apostrophe.

A comma in the sky . . . otherwise known as an apostrophe.

I should have been able to see the chair’s wince from the back of the room.

Not only had I misunderstood the idea of “splicing” in general, which is pitiful since my father is a horticulturist and I’ve known the idea of splicing as it comes to plants my whole life, but I had just taught a class of developmental writers – writers who were not quite ready for college-level writing – completely wrong information.

A comma splice is not putting the comma in the wrong place – that’s just, well, putting the comma in the wrong place.  A comma splice is an error created when a writer connects two sentences with a comma alone, as in Andi went to the store, she bought milk and eggs.  A comma’s job is to separate things, not join them, so we cannot use a comma to connect two sentences.

I never forgot that grammar lesson, and let’s just say I haven’t forgotten the conference after that class either. (Gratefully, she gave me another chance, and I taught developmental writing for many years after that.)

This experience taught me a lesson that Mrs. Hooker had begun giving me in 8th grade – grammar matters.  It doesn’t matter because of some set of arbitrary rules (because the rules aren’t arbitrary), and it doesn’t matter because it makes us look smarter if we can use fancy sentence structures (although it can).  Grammar matters because grammar is what gives sentences their clarity and changes the meanings of words.  Without grammar, we might as well be trying to read an unorganized collection of magnetic poetry words – the words mean, but they don’t mean together.

New writers often want to experiment with grammar, to write a whole story of sentence fragments, to eschew commas altogether. . . and that kind of writing can be fun. But as reading – it’s atrocious.  It takes a master writer to be able to toss aside the rules of grammar and still make meaning.  Most of us are not master writers.

And most of us know that. Perhaps this is why the number one thing students and clients tell me when I look at their work is, “I’m terrible at grammar. ” Hands down – the most pressing concern of many writers is that their grammar is incorrect.

But of course, most writers use grammar very well – if we read or speak regularly with people who share a language, our grammar is going to be mostly correct just through practice.  So let me assuage those fears – most of us write quite correctly without even trying.

And yet, still we worry. Still, we want to know more. We want to be able to take the words we have and order them to mean differently – Her skin glowed with the yellow of sunbeams through the shades is VERY different than Her yellow skin glowed, right?  And it means differently when we say, I love going to visit Grandma, but I adore visiting Grandpa as opposed it I love going to visit Grandma; I adore visiting Grandpa.  One word and a different punctuation mark, and the sentence means entirely differently. 

Plus, we all know the mortification that comes when we misspell or mistype something publicly – use the wrong “weather/whether” and watch out! Those pointing fingers appear like magic.

Grammar is powerful and amazing, and I’m so glad I had the honor of learning it so deeply by teaching it.  And I’m excited to go back to it.

Starting on April 1st, I will be offering a 3-week grammar and writing culture intensive. We will cover sentence structure, punctuation (i.e. uses for the semi-colon that extend beyond the emoticon), sentence variety, verb structures, Netiquette, proofreading techniques, and much more.  Each weekday for three weeks, you will receive an email lesson from me that includes examples and links to websites where you can learn more.  Also, students who are interested can join a private Facebook group to ask questions, post examples, and discussion all things grammar and writing etiquette related.  Finally, I will read one-page of work by each student and look for patterns of error in your grammar.

The price of this class is $125, and there are 25 seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.  The course is appropriate for anyone – business people who write for work, frequent emailers who just want to have more correct grammar, professional writers who need a brush-up – all are welcome.  Please email me at to register.

I hope you’ll join us. I think it’ll be fun – as we all know, poor grammar can be quite hysterical – and informative for all of us.  Plus, you can have the pleasure my students have always enjoyed – getting glee from pointing out my grammatical mistakes, as you find them.

What do you think of grammar? Love it? Hate it? Why?



  • tim gallen

    me love grammer, andi. i’s always right goode.

    seriously, grammar is important. without it, the message gets lots in a sea of spliced commas, improper usage, and semicolons setting off lists. there are a few rules i find a tad ridiculous – cough, cough, split infinitives, cough, cough, prepositions to end sentences, cough – because i don’t think they throw off a sentence’s meaning. sometimes they do, sure. but i think there are more vital grammatical rules than others.

    • Andi

      I think the key, Tim, is to know as many of the rules as possible and to know when they don’t matter. For instance, misplaced modifiers really are a big deal sometimes. If you’re not careful, you say, “I saw the cat in my pajamas at the fridge at midnight.” instead of “In my pajamas, I saw the cat at the fridge at midnight.” Big difference – if a cat is wearing pjs, it should be a meme on FB. :)

  • Rachel

    I love grammar. I’m such a nerd when it comes to grammar, and grammatical errors are the result of one of two things: ignorance or indifference. If someone doesn’t know the rule, that’s fine. If they do, but choose to ignore it (and not for creative reasons), that’s just being lazy. That is inexcusable to me.

    I just wish they still taught grammar like they used to. I loved diagramming sentences in 9th grade accelerated English. They don’t teach kids to diagram anymore. It’s a shame. Also, people who don’t major in English or consider themselves writers shouldn’t eschew grammar. People will, unfortunately, draw conclusions about your intelligence and/or education if you write poorly.

    My tip to my students was always to read their writing aloud or silently, but to read it. If it flowed, it was probably correct. If they stumbled or felt like something didn’t “sound right”, it was probably incorrect. Our prose ear is one of our best tools, and we should learn to trust it.

    • Andi

      I’m with you, Rachel. I LOVE grammar and diagramming sentences still makes me excited. I wish we taught it, too, but we need to find a new way to do it that compliments the charts on the board – maybe physical diagramming with some people being nouns, some verbs, some prepositions . . . sounds fun, huh? And yeah, reading out loud – so crucial!

  • Aaron

    I don’t understand grammar. Honestly. Prior to 12th grade, I had never diagrammed a sentence. I don’t know the rules.

    I do however appreciate clear communication. I know grammar is vital to that. I was always told to “write like I talk”. I hope it’s grammatically correct. If not, I’ll just claim I’m avant garde. 😉

    • Andi

      Just a tiny word of caution on the “write like you talk” thing. It works well to get tone and inflection, but most of us don’t speak grammatically – we add “likes” or pauses for effect. So we don’t want to transcribe what we talk, but just get close. . .

      And I think you might have fun understanding how grammar works, Aaron. It has made me a better writer since I can play with the way the words are ordered on the page and know I’m not obscuring but enhancing meaning.

  • Martha Orlando

    I am a grammar junkie! I cannot tell you how many student papers submitted in social studies would be edited for grammar. I would inevitably hear, “But, this isn’t an English class!” Tough! Grammar covers the gambit. I do hope they came away with that knowledge.
    Great post, Andi!

    • Andi

      Brava to you, Martha, for insisting on good grammar in all writing. :)

  • Patti Leamon

    There’s a great essay, “In Praise of the Humble Comma,” by Pico Iyer. It conveys the same sentiment as your post, and is a fun read for anyone for believes in the importance (and, dare I say, excitement!) of grammar.

    • Andi

      I LOVE that essay, Patti.