Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

On Grammar

Nov 30, 2015

by KT Heins, Colorado Review Associate Editor

In fourth grade, Mrs. Catz—her name has been changed to a word that I enjoy because cats are my favorite and for privacy purposes—told me to consider a sentence as a skyscraper and words as building blocks. Nouns, which may need an article for foundation, she said, linked to verbs, and you could stack as many of the eight parts of speech as you need on top to get a good basic, or even compound, sentence.

I never told her the improbability of building blocks ever amounting to a skyscraper. Clearly, the metaphor didn’t stick with me.

The sentence was the finished product, the skyscraper scaling into the sky. I was an anxious nine-year-old. I worried about the abandoned, unfinished sentences, left orphaned and unloved in a halfway house for teenage or adolescent sentences. The worksheets she used implored us to finish incomplete sentences. Add the verb; position the indirect object. I put a period after every single one, without adding any extra articles, nouns, verbs, or parts of speech. I wanted to appreciate them in their unfinished state. After all, someone had to love them.

I quickly amended my ways after earning myself an Easter egg of a zero and a lecture from the teacher in question. Sentences should not be compromised.  This doesn’t necessarily excuse my terrible knowledge of grammar. In fact, I’ve started auditing middle school classrooms to catch up to my peers here in the program, trying to retain any knowledge I can on prepositions and semi-colons.

However, like all things in life, it’s about striking a balance, especially in the workshop environment. When my peers in workshop look at a sentence, they don’t necessarily deconstruct it. They don’t remark where a comma could better function, or if a better verb is necessary.  They don’t argue that a compound sentence could be broken into a simpler one. They do wonder about the use of italics instead of quotation marks. They don’t press you when you admit that you don’t know exactly how to use quotation marks. They do ask if run-on sentences are purposeful for pace. You don’t tell them that you should have reread the draft before submission and that you feel fraudulent, that your grammatical incompetence is not artistic expression. They work with what they’re given. They show you that grammar is a subjective choice, and if you used it incorrectly, you better know what you’re doing. Never before had I experienced the sensation of an acceptable fragment. Nor did I ever think of a comma as an author’s tool.

Challenges from my first year conclude that my peers need sentences to be readable, something that was an obvious issue in my first workshop experience. Young writers can often sacrifice form for style, and the good writers make a compromise between them. Thoughts need at least one verb to make a profound sentence.

My time here has been filled with challenges. The cliché is this: my education is an unfinished sentence, a book unwritten, or in progress; unfinished or grammatically incorrect sentences don’t function; to love words, you have to treat them right, work within the grammar rules given.

What I do have to tell you is that my peers are patient, intensely kind, and unapologetically unpretentious. This is a community for those who are advanced, and those who have some catching up to do.

So rare is a university where you feel safe to learn.

 

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