The Little Green Grammar Book

Published : Saturday, January 02, 2010 | Label: Books  

The Little Green Grammar Book, twin to The Little Red Writing Book (UNSWP, October 2008), aims to do for grammar what the red book does for style. And in the same tone of voice. It’s useful, but it has attitude. It’s fun, I’m told, to read.

Grammar is the rules for paradise, I say in the book; writing is the paradise. Grammar is the set of rules you’ll need to know and sometimes cleverly break, but never forget, if you want to write with grace or cool or circumspection.  However your paradise is configured.

The laws of grammar are also like the rules (mostly unwritten) of democracy. You want to be free—you need to know how to behave freely, your obligations and your rights. You want to write unforgettably—you’d better know as much as you can about the inner life of sentences, the mathematics of meaning. Grammar, that is. This is what my book’s about.

imageYou want to write to win her love or secure the bid or pass the exam or nail the speech—you’re going to need some grammar. And the better you want to write, the subtler and more robust your grammar will need to be. This is what my book is about.

This is not a book for pedants. It’s for people, like me, who love (even when it hurts) making sentences. Who love the madness and grace of the way we make meaning—sometimes transcendent, sometimes just neat—out of congregations of words. It’s a primer, and it models a way of learning and teaching grammar. But it’s more a lover’s guide than a textbook.

This is the kind of grammar book—I’m sorry—a poet writes about grammar.

The Little Green Grammar Book is widely available. You can get it at most bookshops, or ask them to get it in. You can buy it online. You can get it from the publisher. Or you can buy it from me at writingworkshops.com.au.

Here’s how I put it in a media release that went out with the book.

1. There are many books on grammar in the market. How is yours different?

The Little Green Grammar Book is a grammar to take to bed with you. Though you could turn to it in a grammar crisis, my book is to be read rather than consulted. It is a book, like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, to be enjoyed, not merely used. There are encyclopedic reference works for that (which are great if you know the name of your syntactical issue and want to go deep), and there are linguistic texts, and there are many simple guides to the parts of speech, and there’s the grammar checker on your computer, for glib suggestions on the run. My book is a kind of Joy of Sex for writers who want to find out how good syntax makes for good sentences; how a writing life depends finally on technique and how that depends on getting deep into the inner life of sentences. My book is more than a repair manual for out of tune sentences; it’s much more than an elementary primer; it’s much less than an encyclopedia. It’s an exploration of and exaltation in the messy and beautiful deep structure of langauge. And it’s a grammar by a writer for the writer in everyone.

2. With the advent of internet forums, chat rooms and text messaging, making grammatical sense seems to have become secondary to geting the message out quick. How does grammar matter in the twenty-first century?

No one can avoid grammar. Even if you can’t tell a pronoun from a participle at ten paces, you’re still an amateur grammarian; you employ it, at quite a sophisticated level, every time you speak or text or make a half-decent sentence, even a sentence fragment. You need grammar if you want to make sense, no matter how fast you want to make it. You can use some sms code, some emotikons, and a few abbreviations, if you like, but you can’t do without grammar; grammar is the system by which we make meaning out those otherwise autistic blobs of sound and suggestion that we call words. You can’t make a whole lot of sense until you write a sentence, and grammar is how you make a sentence. The more elegantly or rapidly or beautifully or memorably you want to make sense in a text message or a newspaper column or a speech or a love letter or a novel or a poem, the more syntax you’re going to need—that is, the better you might need to know your way around the fourteen pieces of punctuation, the more classic gaffes you might want to be sure to avoid, the more varieties of legitimate sentence you might want to compose. Knowing some grammar helps you send cooller, briefer, more potent and winning messages. Grammar, indeed, is the new black. Or perhaps the new green. It’s how writers take that bit of extra care; it’s how they learn to be better writers and stay that way. In the end, it helps you write that message not only better but faster, too.

3. How would you rate Australia’s grammar?
Here’s a strange thing. Two of the most widely read and respected authorities on English grammar are Australians---Rodney Huddleston (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) and Pam Peters (The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide); at the same time, one encounters more basic grammar glitches in Australian academic papers, policy documents, newspapers, novels, annual reports and political speeches than in writing of the same kind in other comparable jurisdictions—the US, the UK or Canada. I listened, the other day, to a wonderfully intelligent and passionate scholar read an otherwise painstaking seminar paper that included the phrase “the research undertaken by Professor X and I” (should be “..and me"). Though it’s a small breach and it hardly matters in itself, it jars; some people would say it’s a habit of speech and so common in writing, it may not be a breach at all. For me, it speaks of the lack of comfort with, feeling for, knowledge about and care with sentence making that characterises Australian writing; but at the same time, there we are, as I say, with a profound expertise in the field. A classic and quite beautiful Australian contradiction. You could say that our lack of grammatical fluency reflects an aspect of the culture: we value showing more than telling; we are famously and proudly laconic (although on paper—in legislative drafting and report writing, for instance—we write the longest-sinded prose in the world). Or you could say, as in so many other fields of human endeavour, from opera singing to football and parenting, that a little more care might help us do what we’re trying to do more beautifully. Australians, in my view, would write and speak more like themselves, if they learned to take a bit more care—to write and utter
tauter, more robust sentences. 

4. These are a few of the most common grammar gaffes I come across, including in my own writing.

a. The dangling modifier.
“We make recommendations for avoiding injuries in this report”
“A so called friend of Heather Mills claimed that she worked as an escort with Mills in a documentary that aired on Tuesday night”
In these two examples, small phrases ("in this report”, “in a
documentary") appear at the wrong place and suggest something other than what the writer meant.

b. Loose pronoun reference.
“I took the hat from the chair and put it on my head.” (Put the chair on my head?) And who’s doing what here?
“Sara found a jacket in the wardrobe that her grandmother had worn when she was a girl,”

c. Commas out of place or no commas at all:
“However it appears that as this report was generated from old data the problem is easily explained.”
“All 300 people employed at the plant, will lose their jobs “
“I apologise for the delayed response, I got distracted by some emergencies in the office.” (Sentence splice.)

d. Singular verbs after compound (plural) subjects.
“Alcohol and liver damage had taken its toll.” (Should be “their") “The obstinacy and corruption of the ruling junta is delaying the arrival of aid.” (Should be “are") “There’s hundreds of them.” (Should be “There are")

e. Use of “less” for “fewer”
“Twelve items or less”
“She reads less books than she should.”

f. Widespread confusion between “which"and “that” and the overuse of “which”, as in “You are entering an area which contains steep cliffs and loose edges.” (Better as “that contains”.)

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