Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Devil Wears Commas

I would like my classroom entrance to be Miranda Priestlyesque: my students waiting at attention. Kara would immediately unburden me of my handbag, and Luis would hand me my coffee. I would nonchalantly toss my coat upon Jackie’s desk, and she would scramble to hang it up for me. “Jake,” I would demand, “I want the newest edition of Us Weekly on my desk by the end of the break! Wait… what’s that you said: it’s not on the newsstands until tomorrow? Well, I must be the first to know Kim Kardashian’s secret to losing five pounds in five minutes and how Kate Gosselin will deal with her Dancing with the Stars ousting-so FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT HAPPEN!”

But, if I can’t have all that, I would be more than happy to settle on inspiring at least enough fear into my students’ hearts that they proofread their essays and try to use correct grammar and punctuation.

I do inspire the fear of proper grammar and punctuation, just in the wrong people: my friends and colleagues. My students unabashedly send me emails full of grammar and punctuation errors disputing their failing grades, while my friends and colleagues fear writing me emails because they are afraid I will judge their writing skills.

The irony is that the ones who worry about their writing skills the most are the ones who need the least improvement.

Most of us don’t know all the grammar rules; I know I don’t. And most of us make typos here and there; I know I do (which is why I make poor Emily proofread everything I write- and she’s out sick today so there may be a typo or two in this post). I’d say that most of our writing skills are equivalent to Andy’s fashion sense in the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada:

I know Miranda wouldn’t agree, but I think Andy looks pretty cute. No, I would not wear those shoes with that skirt, but I kind of dig that she’s mixing patterns with the skirt and the scarf and there’s nothing wrong with her coat. Basically, no one is going to look at her on the street, shake their head, and say, “That is one hot mess!” I mean, it’s not like she’s wearing this:

The people who should worry are those whose writing is the equivalent of Helena Bonham Carter’s outfit, the ones who don’t think grammar and punctuation matter. And they are out there. In fact, I had a real wake-up call this weekend. I was at a writing workshop and someone asked if the work presented to agents had to be grammatically correct as long as the content was good.

My initial reaction was “Duh!” But, I do understand where she was coming from… I think.

I think that her question stems from a belief that rules are creativity’s antithesis. Like if we adhere to the grammar rules, we are giving in to “The Man." The belief that real artists are focused on the creative essence rather than whether or not a comma is correctly inserted. That the meaning of the words are more important than their spelling.

But, think of it like this: writing riddled with errors is like wearing a beautiful Prada dress to a wedding. It's made of the most gorgeous silk, the silhouette perfectly frames your body, but it’s full of holes and stains. People won’t be focused on the dress’ craftsmanship; they will be wondering why you didn’t clean it up before you wore it, and the bride will be insulted. Poor grammar makes our writing (even great writing) look sloppy, and it's disrespectful to the reader.

That's all.


keppi baranick said...


Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh, terrific analogies. I taught writing in college and tried to express something similar. The sad thing is so many writers will actually try to find an agent with writing riddled with typos and errors. I am in awe of English teachers. It takes serious patience.

It's funny, really, that the kids who worry the most have the least issues--well, actually, it sort of makes sense. Because they care that much, their work tends to be much better.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

As an English teacher, I was often approached by a student, classic book in hand, who then pointed out to me a certain breaking of one of the rules of grammar.

I would point out how that "crime" made the sentence sound more like spoken speech or highlighted the desired mood of the moment. And then point out the correct grammar in the rest of the page, saying, "You have to know the rules before you know when it's wise to break them."

The same goes for life, too, for that matter, Roland

Oh, a question : I've seen so many variations of some words mangled by students that every so often I start to write a word and go, "Damn, what's the correct spelling?" Does that ever happen to you? Just wondered, Roland

Kimberly Franklin said...

I am so happy I found your blog, and I agree with everything you just said here. Plus... I LOVE "The Devil Wears Prada!!" :)

Talli Roland said...

What a great analogy! I taught secondary school English and I can definitely relate.

Thanks for dropping by my blog!

Jen said...

Love the ending "That's all." Perfectly said. I work very hard to make sure I am using proper grammar and punctuation, but for those moments where I suck I have people. That's right my people handle it for me. LOL

Missed Periods said...


That happens to me all the time. I find myself Googling the word "habit" to see if I have been wrong all these years and it does have two b's.