Tuesday, October 5, 2010


We all remember getting essays back in high school with the famous little marking rubric: Content, Organization,  Spelling, Mechanics.  Or something like that.

Mechanics = Grammar + Punctuation + Capitalization.

Mechanics have little to do with writing style, which is your "voice" and your unique way of putting words together (syntax), your word choices, and the tone you use. Mechanics are the beams and girders of writing, the underlying structure, the grammatical frame-work for writing.

The funny thing about mechanics, though, is that nothing is set in stone and there is not a unified voice amongst the grammar police of the world. The rules are different depending on who you talk to. (Yes, I dangle my prepositions and it feels sooooo good -- because that's different than displacing or dangling a modifier, which is truly a problem in terms of writing clarity). And, well, mechanics are actually based on spoken language. When it comes to language, talking and listening came first. We tend to write how we talk (cleaned up a little, without vocal fuzziness like "um" and "uh" and "eh"). In fact, punctuation marks were invented as a way of helping people know how to phrase writing so that it mimics spoken word when it is read.

The other thing about mechanics is that they mean nothing outside of the context of writing. Leave the sentence diagramming for the grammar geeks. We need them (truly). I have an editing friend who is brilliant at these sorts of details. She also suggests that I lie down for a nap instead of lay down for a nap, and she has also informed me, on no uncertain terms, that I cannot be a professional person and that there is no such thing as an adult child. (Yes, she's picky but I love her for it.)

But we don't all have to be grammar geeks. What we need to be is confident in our writing voice, with something particular that we want to say. Although I did pages and pages of sentence diagramming in Jr. High, where I really learned about grammar was in University when I started to take an interest in my own writing. I was already a competent writer but knew very little about why that was the case. Formal grammar (outside of the context of my desire to write well) just made it all seem more complicated than it really is. Grammar, etc. are just tools for bettering our communication. That's all. As tools, they do a much better job when applied for real reasons.

So what makes a good writer? Listening and reading. That's it. You get the flow of language in your ear and you put it on the page. Ta da. You reread your writing to make sure it makes sense. You do want to watch for sentences like "I saw the trailer peeking through the window." You can thank E.B. White for that one (see below).

You don't need to traumatize or bore your children with grammar workbooks in order for  them to learn grammar. It's already in their heads, in their voices. You can just talk about writing clarity instead... when it comes up. It doesn't hurt to know about grammar and punctuation and capitalization - not at all. But it needs to be real, anchored in one's own writing. (I feel the same way about spelling.)

And because it's about someone's writing, which is oh-so-personal, feedback needs to be encouraging and gentle... step-by-step rather than all at once. It's good to focus on content and talk about that rather than worry about conventions of language. At least, at first. When children become confident in their writing and want to present something to the larger world, this little acronym may help older children polish their writing (but only after they've had ample time to be creative and get the content to their liking, and only if they're open to this sort of thing). C.O.P.S.:

  • Capitals 
  • Organization 
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

This is a tool, a simple starting point, for kids to use when they feel they are ready to share their writing with others. And remember, not all writing needs to be polished -- that makes the process far too tedious and can suck the joy from writing. The only writing that needs editing is writing that the child wants to polish because they would like to share it with an audience.

At our house, we also like to have some good references around that we can turn to when we aren't sure what is okay and what's not and why. You may also have a little grammar geek in the making who delights in how the language works. Here are some books we've read and enjoyed...

For the language-loving child in your house:

Brian P. Cleary has a wonderful series of books about the parts of speech. Words Are CATegorical. He talks about nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, antonyms, synonyms, homonyms, homophones, contractions, similes and metaphors, conjunctions, contractions, prepositions... phew! Each book focuses on one part of speech. And there are more than one book, usually, on each. The books are all silly. All funny. And all of them make their point. The libraries tend to have most of them.

Mad Libs is a fun way to play with parts of speech. You can make up funny, goofy, hilarious sentences by filling in the blanks with the appropriate type of word required, your choice of word! There's also a Jr. version available that provides word suggestions to use.

The regular version is designed to be played as an interactive game with a group of people (2 or more). You don't share the story with the other players, just ask for their contributions in terms of the parts of speech. You then read the "story" aloud.

Mad Libs have been in circulation for over 40 years and there are many choices in terms of subject matter (published in different books). Once you get the hang of how they work, you could even try to make up your own story possibilities.

This is a  pop-up book. I don't know how mechanics can have a more entertaining presentation than through a pop-up book. Perfect Punctuation. From School Library Journal: "Filled with informative tabs, lift-the-flaps, and pop-ups, this highly interactive book acts as a giant grammar lesson. Readers will learn the proper use for commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation points, dashes, and more. The text is funny as well; for example, the section called comma jokes shows how commas change the meaning of sentences: Lets eat the kids begged Mom becomes Lets eat, the kids begged Mom." – Lisa Gangemi Kropp

Oh... well, maybe things can get a little more entertaining. Lynne Truss, of the adult version of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, has translated her brand of grammar hilarity into cunningly enticing books for kids. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Girl's Like Spaghetti, and Twenty-Odd Ducks.

She definitely gets the "point" across.

There are a couple of other books, not grammar focussed, that are fun for kids who love words.

The Word Snoop by Ursula Dubosarsky. "A wild and witty tour of the English language! The Word Snoop sure knows an ot-lay about palindromes, rebuses, and Pig Latin! And spoonerisms, too!" The book has a brief history of the language, information about why English is so strange, some grammar stuff, lots of playful ways to look at language - it's fun and a great resource for kids who like this sort of thing.

The Weighty Word Book "will appeal to kids who want to sound as smart as they are. It offers a clever, funny way to introduce new words into the vocabulary. . . . There's one word for every letter of the alphabet--wait until you see what they do with dogmatic, juxtapose and zealot." -- The Gazette "Each of these twenty-six short stories takes an elaborate, circuitous path that leads to a 'weighty' one-word punch line. . . . It's a creative and humorous approach to vocabulary building, and a natural lead in to having students create their own tall tales with multisyllabic conclusions." -- School Library Journal

There's now a companion book, Weighty Words, Too.

For the older learner and adult (and yes, sometimes grammar books are just a tad racy, so feel free to preview):

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (yes, of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little). I love this book. I'm not ashamed to say it. I adore it. It's funny (thank you E.B. White) and it's clever and it's clear. If you get only one book on writing, this is the one. Not everyone will agree with me about that, but then, they'd be wrong. I traded in my yellowed paperback copy for a Maira Kalman illustrated version, which almost feels wrong but not quite. There is now a plain hardcover edition available, so if  you want yours to last, you may want to indulge.

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande is a humorous but info-rich book that debunks many of the grammar myths floating around out there and gets to the heart of what's what in grammar.

I actually read this book cover to cover, chuckling. That's saying something.

(And she's not a big fan of Lynne Truss, so advanced apologies to those of you who are.)

It's Bill Bryson. Troublesome Words.  This is more of a book on usage than grammar per se, but it's a helpful resource. Check it out at the library first to see if you'd find it useful for your home reference shelf. "Is it whodunnit or whodunit? Do you know? Are you sure? Coming to your rescue is bestselling author Bill Bryson with his clear, concise and entertaining guide to problems of English usage and spelling. It has been an indispensable companion to those who work with the written word for over twenty years." Another fabulous book along the same lines is Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Ignore the bad reviews. Of course this isn't a "dictionary"... it's a very insightful, brilliant book about usage.

Yes, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. From Amazon.com: "Karen Elizabeth Gordon is no ordinary grammarian, and her works (including The New Well-Tempered Sentence, Torn Wings and Faux Pas, and The Disheveled Dictionary)--are no ordinary books of grammar. A special edition of the 1984 classic, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is populated by a wickedly decadent cast of gargoyles, mastodons, murderous debutantes, and, yes, vampires (both transitive and otherwise), who cavort and consort in order to illustrate basic principles of grammar. The sentences are intoxicating--"How he loved to dangle his participles, brush his forelock off his forehead with his foreleg, and gaze into the aqueous depths"--but the rules and their explanations are as sound as any you might find in Strunk and White. Outlining the building blocks of the English language, from parts of speech to phrases and clauses, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire goes on to exorcise such grammatical demons as passive voice, fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences. At last, a handbook of grammar you will actually want to read. In the words of Gordon's preface, "Howling, exploding, crackling, flickering with new life-forms, and drunk on fresh blood (some of mine is certainly missing), this deluxe edition reminds us on every page that words, too, have hoofs and wings to transport us far and deep."

That should hold you for awhile or at least give you a place to start looking (beyond dry mounds of workbook-style grammar material out there for homeschoolers). If have a serious writer in your house, then a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style may also be a helpful resource.

As a closing treat, here is the brilliant Stephen Fry speaking oh-so-eloquently about the use of language ... and some ingenious soul has animated it with the words.