iTeach


Speech and Drama was one of my high school subjects. I looked forward to the June 1999 exam: we had to create our own play. So my friends and I started writing, which means we spent many late nights at Bellville library.

I was intrigued at how they wrote. They wrote as quickly as possible, didn’t bother to correct sentence structures and wrote dialogue that filled many pages.

I questioned my intelligence and felt pressure to be a slam poet. I mean, come on, dialogue just poured out of their pens. So eventually I told them I’d write one scene myself. I didn’t want to write it with them around me; I wanted to write it at home.

Which is what I did. I had more time to write and more time to rewrite. What’s more important than rewriting? The boys didn’t understand my need to rewrite. They thought that writing something once is enough; anything else would be overwriting.

The first draft takes time but it clears my mind. I try to write without thinking. It’s more difficult now that I consider myself a properse writer but I still try to write without editing. So all the cliches come pouring out, the bad sentence constructions flourish and I figure out what I want to say. My tenses get tied and twisted, too. And sometimes they remain that way.

Yes, sometimes I will publish the first draft. Life happens, you know? But I try to let a post sit in the Drafts section for a bit. It’ll stew while I concentrate on other things. Coffee, SATC, Tweet, and reading Middlesex. The other things that make me happy.

So I went home that night and I wrote a scene that made my friends clutch at their hearts the following day. They’re a tad OTT, I know. That scene took me at least 2 hours to write, I’m sure. Not just 20 minutes. I wanted it to be perfect. It wasn’t — of course it wasn’t — perfect but it was better than what the two of them wrote.

But how should you rewrite your work?

Let it stew for a bit

I give you permission to do something else for at least 30 minutes. Take a walk, play with the cat or go stare at Table Mountain. Our company overlooks Church Street in Woodstock so I like to stand on the balcony. Unfortunately this has the potential to cause car crashes.

Do what you have to do but do it responsibly.

Learn or relearn some grammar

Know the difference between Past Simple and Present Perfect Simple so that you can write clearer posts, articles and reports. There are grammar quizzes online and there are many grammar books at your local second hand bookstore. One or two hours [of studying] a week should be enough for you to know the basics.

Know when words look wrong

My spelling sucks. Fine then, my spelling sucks sometimes. But I know when a word looks wrong. And I know how to use the Merriam-Mebster Firefox add-on. It’s awesome. So please download it right now.

It also helps to read. A lot. Online reading counts, yes, but not Yahoo! Live. Read something that will force you to use a dictionary. This is one of the few ways you will learn new words.

Get tighter, leaner and meaner

Forget about those high school essay assignments. Yes, those 1000-word essays on The difference between the X and Y Chromosomes taught you verbosity. Keep sentences short and use few prepositional phrases: your sentences will be easier to read.  Try not to start too  many sentences with participial phrases, either; these phrases make it easy to use dangling participles and all the action is at the end of the sentence. This isn’t always a good idea.

Be consistent

A few grammar and punctuation ‘rules’ can cause a fight between sub-editors: how to form plurals of single letters; how to form the possessive of words ending in ‘s’; and whether a space should separate an em dash from the next word. Get a style guide to solve these problems. Other issues that you should decide on are which English to use — US or UK — and whether you will use formal or informal English.

Let someone else read your work

Just suck it up. The person who reads your work will see things you didn’t see on the third or even fourth reading. Our brains are trained to ignore errors in our own work; we see what we expect and ignore everything else.

I’d like to go back in time and kick my 14- to 18-year-old self. She used to daydream and doodle in English classes. I blame her for the feeling I get in my stomach when I read certain sentences.

There wouldn’t be much wrong with the sentence, even: the grammar would be OK; the spelling would be OK; and I wouldn’t be able to fault it for clarity. But I something was wrong. It stayed like this until, oh, last Tuesday when I did one of my google searches and I read about prepositional phrases. And then I realised something: *that’s* what I don’t like. I don’t like introductory prepositional phrases.

These phrases start with a preposition and has a noun phrase or pronoun after that: In Putsonderwater good food means eating at your mom’s. Sentences could have more than one prepositional phrase  –> In Putsonderwater is one; at your mom’s is the second. Now see, there’s nothing wrong with using ’em occasionally. The same could be said for almost anything else in life: sex, drugs, rock n roll. Fine, then. Perhaps not sex.

Why my dislike for these phrases, then? Well, there are at least two reasons. Introductory prepositional phrases can survive without commas but too many people still use commas. So one more comma is born into this cruel world.

I think these phrases are awkward so I rewrite them. Which sounds better: Since 2008 Joy-Mari has been writing about language, grammar and stuff. OR Joy-Mari has been writing about language, grammar and stuff since 2008.

Yes, I know it all depends on what you want to emphasise. So, yes, you could emphasise that I have been writing Word Whisperer since 2008. But you could find a different way of telling that story, no?

The third reason is that we have forgotten how to use our brains. We tend to write whatever trips out. No, wait. Writing a first draft is good. But failing to edit is unforgivable. So perhaps I’m biased but I prefer the second sentence. The first sentence tempts one to slip a comma between 2008 and Joy-Mari. Learn to resist that temptation; do without introductory prepositional phrases.

Edit: I suppose moderation is always better. Don’t eschew these prepositional phrases; use them sparingly.

A short while back, I was asked to pitch a column article idea to the editor of one of my favourite publications. The pitch went fine and she asked me to write the article. I was so excited. I’ve been admiring the magazine for ages – my reluctant mentor introduced me to it at the beginning of this year. No, I won’t say who my reluctant mentor is; I don’t want to drop names.

So I start writing. And I wrote. And I wrote more. And somehow, I didn’t write about grammar; I wrote about spelling and confusing words and stuff that didn’t make much sense. *I cringe*

So what is Grammar?

I think it’s easier to write about what grammar isn’t than what it is. Especially for me. But let’s see what my Oxford Paperback Dictionary Thesaurus says: grammar (n) 1 – the whole structure of a language, including the rules for the way words are formed and their relationship to each other in sentence. 2 – knowledge and use of the rules of grammar. 3 – a book on grammar.

Notice how it didn’t say incorrect spelling or the inconsistent use of ampersands. Grammar is a branch of linguistics that consists of syntax, morphology, and phonology. It can even be split into two camps: prescriptive and descriptive.

It gets very complicated, this grammar stuff: Algebraic syntax; Restrictiveness; Wh-movement; V2 word order. I do not understand all the terms and need to do much googling. But it’s oh-so-interesting. And not just to linguists. Anyone can understand grammar without knowing what V2 word order is. If you can speak and understand a language, you can understand what good grammar results in – proper communication.

The two different types of grammar ‘movements’, prescriptive and descriptive, complement each other. Prescriptive grammar teaches us how we should speak; descriptive grammar describes how we are using language. The study of syntax teaches us how sentences are formed. Morphology studies the internal structures of words and how they can be modified to create new words. Phonology studies how sounds are organised and used. I won’t discuss everything I have learnt – I’ll only discuss that which is easy to understand. For now.

I’ll try to do a weekly post on something directly related to grammar. It’ll teach me something because I’ll be forced to research it properly. 😉