I didn’t actually have any formal training in grammar until college, mostly because my learning disability focused my public school teachers on my developing ability to read and spell, not necessarily the various and nearly infinite rules of English grammar. In that course, the professor said that we should attempt to write always in standard grammar. I disagree.
I very much enjoyed learning the theory and practice behind grammar. The ideas that one should not split an infinitive or end a clause with a preposition or knowing when to use I vs me or who vs whom were like decadent food to me, delicious and exciting. I don’t like stumbling into accidents when writing. I don’t like typos or mistakes in my work. I’m in love with a writer when I see a character ask the question “From/By whom?” and am irritated beyond all reason when I see a character ask that question incorrectly. It drives me crazy to see someone over correct the phrase “from him and me” to “from him and I,” which is incorrect. I believe in the Oxford comma and the correct placement of a semi-colon. I love knowing the reasons behind the vagaries of grammar. I love knowing how the machine works and seeing it in perfect motion. In short, I am a grammar nazi.
Though I’m not entirely sure that a love of grammar and its correct usage is negative. Those of us that fall under that label are often zealous in our defense of correct usage, but the correct usage of any method so wonderfully ordered and laid out as grammar should not be so easily thrown off. Why not do it the correct way when there is, in fact, a correct way? There are, however, gaps.
In that same grammar class, I learned about the ten sentence patterns, but I had an inkling that there was an eleventh that was not listed: a sentence with a transitive verb, a direct object, an indirect object, and an object compliment. I asked the professor if such a sentence existed. He said he could not think of one. But for the next few days, I could not stop thinking about it. The idea stuck in my mind, drifting in the background of other tasks and thoughts. Until one day, the answer popped into my head fully formed: “He bought me a necklace as a gift.” For those of you who don’t know grammar quite so well as us Nazis here is a breakdown: He=subject, bought=transitive verb, me=indirect object, necklace=direct object, as a gift=object compliment. Needless to say, I was pleased and told my professor at the first opportunity about my discovery. But this made me realize that grammar is as yet not completely defined.
When to Be Formal:
When in doubt be as formal as possible. Emails (not to friends and family), school papers, work presentations, letters of inquiry, etc., all require a writer to present him or herself in the best possible light, meaning an intelligent and well-“spoken” individual. While it may seem overly formal to use “whom” correctly or put any preposition at the end of a clause, it still looks better than not doing so. Because if I, or someone like me, read a text and had some meaningful judgment over the writer, such as an evaluation, I would be put off by incorrect uses but would be pleased by correct uses.
When to be Informal:
When you mean to be. Technically, I shouldn’t be referring to my reader in the second person (or referring to my reader at all), but a blog is informal—it is different from a journalistic article because all of it is opinion based, so a writer is allowed a little more leeway in the grammar department. I mean to be informal by addressing my reader directly. Sometimes I write fragments or run-ons or start a sentence with a conjunction. But (Look! I did it again.) I am aware that I am breaking these rules. I mean to as well. Breaking grammar is fine when a writer is conscious of the breaking and is going for a certain effect, such as me addressing my reader (all two of you) directly. But the purpose of the piece should allow for this kind of coloring outside the lines. An essay for class is not one of those instance wherein someone should break rules. Fiction, poetry, plays, advertising/marketing promos, journals, and personal essays (as in, non-academic) are all instances wherein breaking the rules is appropriate when done with style. When grinding your skateboard on a railing, if the board goes out from under you and you rack yourself on the metal bar, then that’s an accident and it lacks all style. If instead, you flip it up off the railing and land on it without flailing or falling, then that’s on purpose and it has flare. Don’t make a mistake in a text and think it’s okay because I said so. Break the rules of grammar purposefully to create a greater artistry or meaning in your work.
Don’t ever send me an informal email. I will freak out, even if not on you but just to myself. Proofread everything you write for mistakes. Understand that grammar can get in the way of art, and if ever it does, throw it out the freaking window. Pleasing the grammar Nazis is never worth the cost of your art.