Grammar, what is it good for?

When I was at school, English grammar seemed simple. That’s because all they taught me was the difference between a noun, adjective and a verb!

About 20 years later I decided to retrain as a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL). Which is when I found out that I didn’t know the first thing about grammar.

In fact, my grammar was fairly good. After all, as well as being a novelist, I’d spent years working as a journalist and in PR so having a good grasp of the language was a job requirement.

But I had no idea how it worked. The mechanics of the language were lost on me. Future perfect, conditionals, dependent prepositions – although I used them, I had no idea they existed.

After completing my novel The Vault in 2007, one literary agent was interested in the book and I was sent a reader’s report. One of the things the report mentioned was the fact that I slowed down action by using past perfect to describe what was happening when past simple would have been much more immediate.

At the time I didn’t understand what this meant. However, after retraining as an EFL teacher, I went back to The Vault a year ago. Now understanding more about how English grammar works, I was able to edit the book much more effectively. (I also now know that MS Word’s grammar check is not always correct!)

The words I’d used previously weren’t grammatically wrong but the phrasing and tenses were more cumbersome than necessary. Now, the book is quite a few words lighter and flows much better.

If they’d made me learn grammar at school (England in the 1970s), I’d probably have hated it. On the other hand, it might have helped me be a better writer sooner!


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