John E. Simpson

The fiction of grammar

For some reason entirely unfathomable to me, John E. Simpson‘s post on Facebook: Should you vaccinate your child? made me think of grammar fanatics, and the fact that I wouldn’t know how to parse a sentence to their satisfaction–beyond noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, adverb. I don’t remember being taught grammar the way Americans talk about it. Actually, I don’t remember being taught grammar, at all, but I’m pretty certain I was. Perhaps I was made to break down sentences into their components and I’ve simply forgotten because it was so boring. But I can say that, today, I couldn’t name the different parts of a sentence, or the name of a clause and why it’s called that, or what one type of clause does over another type of clause. And I don’t care. Why should I? I have all the grammar I will ever need in order to write comprehensibly.

The Book of the Dragon
The Book of the Dragon

Knowing more grammar than I already do will not help me to achieve my goal to write well. Though just the right amount of grammar–like Baby Bear’s porridge with its right proportion and temperature–will allow me to share ideas with a larger group of sentient beings beyond my felicitous feline, Zuli Souza, and my dangerous delightful (as yet unnamed) dragons, and hopefully be understood. (All name suggestions for the dragons will be welcomed, by the way. There are three of the wee beasties, so far. Perhaps I should run a contest on Facebook, the prize being a copy of The Book of the Dragon by Cruelo.)

A writer who thinks it’s paramount, or even important, to know the difference between a deponent verb and some other type of verb (and I’ve seen quite a few on Facebook over the years argue about this stuff); unless they actually have to teach grammar for a living, or because they’re home schooling their child and need to teach it for their child to pass national exams; really, take it from me, knowing how to decimate deconstruct a sentence for the Grammar Police will not improve their writing. They will probably impress the GPs and save themselves a jail sentence. However, I don’t think they will impress their readers if their knowledge of grammar is stellar but their writing is the twin sibling of sawdust.



In the middle of the night, after I had written this post, I remembered something a spiritual teacher I was with for about ten years once said about her ex-husband (and men in general). In her often hilarious way, she shared an anecdote of how one of the reasons she had divorced her husband was because of his obsession with things that in her mind he obsessed over for the wrong reasons. She said, “He was constantly worried about the size of his penis. But I told you him: It’s not the size of it that matters, it’s, ‘Do you know how to use it to its greatest effect?’ That’s what’s important to me.” That about sums up a good and natural relationship to grammar. It’s not about how big your knowledge of it is, but how well it serves your desire to use an amazingly abstract medium–words–to make visible that which would otherwise remain hidden from the light of day.