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Think you know grammar, do you?

by Sue Brown-Moore

Oh grammar, you slick little devil, you. 

The English language is exceptionally complex. It’s so difficult to master that most of us who grew up speaking, reading, and writing it aren’t even close to truly mastering its nuances. Language mastery is the realm of the writer, and writers who are serious about their craft should also be serious about their grammar education. Breaking the rules—occasionally and with purpose—can add style and panache to your prose, but in order to know when to break the rules, you first have to learn the actual rules. 

To break the rules, you have to first know the rules. 

But Sue! Isn’t that what editors are for? Yes, that is what some editors are for—copy and proofers, specifically. But there are other types of edits that can get you more story bang for your buck (developmental, structural, and line, for example), and smart authors think of their editors as creative partners more than mistake-catchers. If we’re spending all our time wading through errors, we have less energy for creative suggestions. It’s your responsibility to educate yourself.

Smart authors think of their editors as creative partners, rather than mistake-catchers.

So how do you know if your high school and college grammar courses taught you enough? Chances are, they didn’t. But let’s take a little quiz as a spot check.

  • Do you know the difference between a gerund and a participle? And, as a follow-up, can you name the specific type of participle that is often confused with a gerund? 
  • Can you name all the parts of speech and state their purposes? [Hint: There are 9]
  • Can you tell the difference between a clause and a phrase (and identify which is which)? 

Those concepts are just the tip of the grammar iceberg. There are entire encyclopedia-sized style guides dedicated to the situational nuances of the myriad moving parts of the American English language. And there’s a good chance that there are gaps in your knowledge. Which is okay. Don’t stress about it. As long as you can communicate effectively, you can still do your job, still write your stories and craft your character journeys. But if you want to take your style to the next level and really evolve your prose, you should consider investing in a grammar course. 

If you want to level up your prose, you should consider investing in a grammar course.

I say “investing” because some of them can be quite expensive. When I was first training to be an editor, I took courses from UC Berkley Extension’s Professional Sequence in Editing. The  cost of just the Grammar course, which runs for 12 weeks and is conducted completely online, is an eye-raising $795. And that doesn’t account for the required textbooks. So I really only recommend this course if you are serious about improving your craft. It is a literal investment in yourself, and it is one of the most challenging courses I have ever taken. As a reference point, I have a civil engineering degree, so I’ve taken some damn hard classes. 

The Grammar, Mechanics, and Usage for Editors course from UC Berkeley Extension is one of the most challenging classes I have ever taken.

It is also one of the best decisions I made for my career, even though I always intended to be a developmental editor, not a copy specialist. And let me tell you, I did not know half of what I thought I knew. Comma placement? Pfft! Parts of speech? Hah! And what the hell is a gerund anyway? I actually quite like gerunds now, whereas excessive participle use has become one of my pet peeves. 

Anyhoo. Could you take a different, less expensive and intensive course? Absolutely. Just be sure to do your research first. Whatever you choose should be highly enough rated to be worth your time, money, and energy. Because anything that takes you away from your writing should eventually give you back more than you put in, or it’s not worth the investment. 

Anything that takes you away from your writing should pay you back with interest

Got questions? Leave a comment below and we’ll chat! I’m happy to answer any questions about my experience with UCBE or the merit of grammar courses in general.

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