The mere mention of the dreaded term ‘grammar’ can provoke blushes and shame-faced confessions of “I’m no good at that” among Chalk students, as if they were admitting to never brushing their teeth. It’s not that surprising when you consider the way that language bullies loudly lament the lack of grammar in school curriculae and apostrophe ayatollahs threaten hand-lopping for the misuse of a semi-colon.  Yet the misconception that some people know how to ‘do’ grammar and others don’t can limit confidence and creativity.

 Everybody can ‘do’ grammar.  No-one grows up producing ungrammatical sentences such as “Asleep dogs lie let”.   What a lot of people can’t do is name the different parts of speech or tell a present perfect from a past participle.  They do not know the terminology.  But all human children acquire the ability to order their words into coherent, communicable sentences, usually by around the age of 4.

 In the 60’s, linguist Noam Chomsky put forward the theory that grammar is innate and that all children are born with a kind of blueprint for it in their infant minds.  They then acquire their community’s language and its rules.  You may grow up speaking Jamaican patois, Basque or Twi, but you will produce consistent grammar.  Now this is the important bit:  No kind of grammar is superior to another.  If you are a British prince you will wander about referring to yourself as ‘one’.  If you are Jamaican, you will know that the plural of shoe is shoe-dem.  Neither of these examples is more correct than the other.

 So the notion that there is an exclusive group of academics who ‘know’ grammar and a bunch of ignorant losers who don’t is false.  It is however, pernicious and makes people feel inadequate. This can affect confidence in expressing ideas on the page, and can result in new writers producing strange and garbled prose through fear of writing ‘wrong grammar’.  So how to get over this fear of being ‘found out’ as somehow lacking in the grammar department?  You could try the following:

 Express yourself on paper in the way that comes naturally to you.

  • Trust your instincts.  Read your work aloud so you will hear anything that sounds odd.
  • Pay attention to red and green wiggly lines – check why they’ve occurred  but don’t automatically follow their suggestions – they’re not always right.
  • Check you’ve got your timescales right – if you start writing in the present tense (“He leaves the house in a hurry”), don’t slip back into past (“He jumped into his Ferrari.”)
  • Learn the uses of punctuation marks, especially commas (,) full stops (.) colons (:) and semi colons (;) . It’s empowering and helps you say what you mean.
  • Think about meaning.  Ask yourself if you’re saying what you mean to say, not whether it’s correct.

 And remember – you’re a grammarian.  You can’t help it.  You were born that way.

 Jo Hepplewhite

NB We always include support with grammar and punctuation in our feedback on  Chalk courses – we’re grammar pedants.