The Grace in Grammar: a story of emancipation

by M.E. Alonso

In high school, my favorite English teacher told me that I needed to learn my grammar rules, learn them intimately. Words alone hold meaning, she said, but words with correct grammar wield power.

It was my junior year of high school, my first AP class, and Mrs. Rainer was infamous for having claw-like red pens. Beyond ripping a paper to shreds, she would literally throw it in the trash. She didn’t just give written feedback, she called students out in person, both in class and in private meetings. Her English was impeccable. She spoke as well as she wrote, and she expected nothing less from her students.

We used to, in our brave class of thirteen students, be forced to put our papers up on the big screen for Mrs. Rainer to critique in front of everyone. Once while doing this, I tried to defend a change I made by saying I wanted to make it “more clear.” She lectured me sharply, “Words of two syllables or less receive the suffix ‘-er’. ‘More’ is only used for three or more syllables, with a few exceptions.” I’ve never said “more clear” again.

Even with her stinging corrections, Mrs. Rainer spoke grammar into a beautiful science. There are rules, rules for reasons: for clarity, for structure, for order, for understanding. Like the human body or the universe, the limitations and patterns keep all things in working order. Without grammar rules, we would be babbling, senseless minds on the loose, unable to express or to be understood.

So we set to work learning the science of grammar. We absorbed her lessons with the devout acceptance and consequential obedience of people of faith. We were convinced: once we mastered our practices, our words, bolstered by the correct punctuation, would change the world.

This was the letter of the law, until one day, she tore the veil.

It was my turn to put a paper on the altar for slaughter. It was a creative piece, one I had scrawled out quickly in a stream-of-consciousness style so that I would simply have something to present. I knew my punctuation wasn’t all correct; I had written what came naturally as I thought. I like colons and commas and varied sentence length, so the paper was littered with them, correct or not. I apologized and readied myself for the bloodletting. Instead, she asked me to explain my punctuation in the first sentence. I did, and she smiled before stating simply,

“Maria, you learn the rules so you can break them.”

That day, she changed my take on writing forever.

Beyond being a science, the English language is an art. The rules of grammar are only rules until we know them well enough to make them tools. Then, and only then, are we as writers able to create works of both technical value and aesthetic beauty.

Think of poetry.

Every word, every space, every punctuation mark matters. Each was chosen for a specific, thoughtful, intentional reason. In poetry, we pay attention and allow “mistakes” because of this intentionality afforded to and expected of the genre. But what of everyday writing? What of prose? Should not all writing be constructed with the same careful consideration of poetry? If so, should not all writing be gifted the same freedom to transgress for the sake of art?

It is this idea that has largely shaped my writing style throughout the years.

I write each piece, no matter the genre, with the thought and attention to detail I would commit to poetry. I choose each punctuation mark on purpose. While I grant that the ultimate purpose of punctuation is clarity, I standby the artistic freedom of the mark (to the chagrin of many grammar purists).

For example, in writing about the feeling of being incomplete, I might purposely end a fragment with a period. In writing about waiting, I may forgo all commas and include “and” enough times to rival Hemingway simply because I want to drag and draw out the sentence into a run-on thereby emphasizing the length and agony of the wait. In giving examples, I may do exactly what I describe.

My teacher taught me that the beauty of grammar lies in the exception. When one’s punctuation is consistently perfect, the carefully placed misstep produces a stomp that draws attention and proves a point.

Her class was like that. Her dictatorial rule was the grammar to our creative minds. The boundaries she set, the assignments she gave, the discipline she enforced brought our creativity and craft into a sharp and balanced tension that produced excellence. Once she allowed us the freedom to breach into the forbidden, we became extraordinary.

I would challenge you to the same standard.
Learn your rules.
Sharpen your tools.
Throw away the directions.
Make something extraordinary.