Ahead of her Grammar and Punctuation Basics course next weekend, we spoke to Gillian Polack about the importance of grammar and long-lost letters of the alphabet.
What first drew you to learning about and teaching grammar and punctuation?
Blame my inherent laziness for this. I studied historical linguistics as an undergraduate. What struck me then was how clear a language was when there was a system to explain it and how messy everything was when there wasn’t. The system itself can be argued with and can even be wrong… but having a system to refer to makes writing so much easier. Easier equals lazier and lazier makes my life better. Ever since then I’ve been searching for ways to explain different languages and methods of making words make sense.
What’s the harm in misusing grammar? And does getting it right really benefit a piece writing?
English has a certain structure and grammar helps us diagnose whether a sentence fits this or not. When a sentence fits it, that sentence is more likely to be saying what we intend it to say. That’s my favourite use of grammar. Bad grammar leads to bad writing, and clever grammar can solve writing problems and annoy copyeditors by leaving them no work.
How is bad grammar harmful, then? So many of the sentences that are hard to make sense of and tangle ideas or that mean something different to what the writer intended can be fixed with the application of grammar. This doesn’t make all bad grammar wrong, especially in fiction. In my current novel, one of my people uses poor grammar when she’s emotional. It’s a very good tool for showing her changes in mood. Choosing the appropriate language for what you’re writing is critical.
In other words, bad grammar can make a writer look really stupid and can prevent a reader from understanding what’s on the page.
Are there any surprising facts you’ve stumbled across during your study of grammar?
Grammar to me is part of the study of language. That’s why punctuation fits, and so do letters. One of my all-time favourite facts, therefore, is that English has lost letters. Thorn and ash are my favourites, though yogh is the handiest. It gets a bit complicated when we tangle lost letters with lost and half-lost abbreviations, which you can see on this page, but still, life would be better with thorns and ashes.