Grammar For Ungrammarian, huh?

November 25, 2008
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Grammar For Ungrammarian, huh?

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

December 2008

"Parsing helps you identify the parts of speech and see the relationships between them. . . "

In junior high, Mr. Melman, my English teacher, tried hard to help me master sentence parsing. A complicated sentence would be diagrammed to better understand its structure.

For examples, see and other sites. It’s actually fun. I really got into it, making budding branches for the offshoots of the subject and verb.

Parsing helps you identify the parts of speech and see the relationships between them, but when I wrote, there seemed to be no crossover for me. I was as grammarless as anyone who was never drew a branchlet for a direct or indirect object or a transitive or intransitive verb.

In college, White’s, The Elements of Grammar, was a big help in masking my clumsy grammar. I learned little tidbits and am constantly on the lookout for more.

"The point is that your writing must have authority."

Since I always dream of being able to write clear but elaborate, Anita Brookner-type sentences, I keep up my search of grammar tips. William Zissner in On Writing Well, gives this simple-to-decode advice:

1. Use Active, Strong Verbs

“Joe saw him,” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” leaves doubt as to who did what. It’s unnecessarily longer and ambiguous. How often was Joe seen by the other guy? Once? Every day? Once a week? The passive voice, “was seen by” robs the reader’s energy.

2. Use Simple Words

Of all of the 701 words in Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, 505 are one syllable words. Notice how Bill Clinton is able to grip a crowd by staying simple. Here’s why you should vote for… 1, 2, 3, 4… and elaborates briefly with language that Joe the Plumber can understand.

3. Adverbs

The most important thing you have to know is that most are unnecessary. Use the most descriptive verb you can to avoid them. “The radio blared loudly” is unnecessary. Blare means loud. “He clenched his teeth tightly.” Is there any other way to clench them?

4. Adjectives

As with adverbs, the most important thing you need to know is that most are unnecessary. The concept is conveyed in the noun. Don’t litter your prose with yellow daffodils (what other color are they?), precipitous cliffs, or lacy spiderwebs. Make any adjectives that you use work.

For example, “He looked up at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to steer his motorboat back to the harbor.” The colors here are necessary to describe the weather and to explain the man’s decision.

5. Little Qualifiers

Don’t write (or even say) you’re a bit confused or sort of tired and somewhat annoyed. Be confused, tired, annoyed. Never write that you were quite fortunate. Revel in your good fortune without qualification. (The adjective “good” is acceptable here because, as we all know, there is “bad” fortune as well.)

The point is that your writing must have authority. Little qualifiers whittle away at the reader’s attention span and trust. Be bold.

"Even if you’ve been forbidden to do so by your elementary school teacher, feel free to begin a sentence with “but.” "




6. Punctuation



Zissner says that the only thing you need to know about the period is that most writers don’t get to it soon enough. (Norman Mailer, Aunita Brookner, et. al. are not included as well as other geniuses.) The Exclamation Point! Try to avoid them. They poke a reader in the eye.

The Semicolon

Zissner says that a 19th century mustiness hangs over them. Usually they relate a half-thought to a whole one. The semicolon doesn’t bring the writer to a halt. It brings him to a pause. Modern readers won’t tolerate many of them.

The Dash

Zissner calls the dash “the bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English” because it’s considered not quite proper. But he loves it and so do I. It’s used to amplify or justify a statement. “We decided to keep going—it was only an extra 100 miles and we could get there in time for dinner.” The dash pushes the sentence ahead and explains why they decided to keep going. The other use is to set apart two parenthetical phrases with a couple of dashes. “ He told me to go to the station right now—all month he’d been after me to get my car inspected—yesterday my inspection had expired.” An explanatory detail that might have required another sentence gets tucked in.

The Colon

Zissner thinks the colon is even more fusty than the semicolon, that the dash had supplanted it. But it does help when preceding a list: orange juice, oatmeal, vegan meatballs, and persimmon juice.

Mood Changers

Zissner calls “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” and “instead,” mood changers because they alert the reader to any change in mood from the previous sentence. He suggests you keep these at a minimum and use plain old “but.” Even if you’ve been forbidden to do so by your elementary school teacher, feel free to begin a sentence with “but.”

That and Which

Trying to explain when to use either of these would take at least an hour and probably no one would remember it anyway. Zissner says always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to get the precise meaning, it probably needs “which.”

Here are examples: (notice my fusty colon) His house, which has a red roof, The moon, which I saw from my porch

"For some of us, it takes a lifetime to refine our grammar skills. "




For some of us, it takes a lifetime to refine our grammar skills. But it’s worth pressing on, because knowing them allows you to soar and dip, expand and contract your prose. And maybe, just maybe, people will read your sentences and say, genius, that’s what he is. A genius.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at or at her blog:


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