Grammar Nazism vs Creative Writing

Sherman Alexie, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” started a twitter firestorm with his short statement “Grammar cops are rarely good writers. Imagination always disobeys.”calvin on writing

Coming from my background, a technical writer who attended a liberal English program, I find myself conflicted.

One the one hand, I was taught and truly believe that language is so amazing because of its adaptability. There are no set rules given from God on grammar, only arbitrary rules that we decide are such until the point that subversive forces change it. The reason language survives is its necessity and  adaptability. (Note: for a discussion on this, see my blog about one of my favorite words that shouldn’t exist.) And if it didn’t evolve well all of us would write and speak very differently than we do today.

But, I also wrote a 13 page paper on the verbiness of certain verbs. And I loved every minute of it. Linguistic classes were some of the toughest classes I took in college but they are worth every minute you spend looking at rules, decoding texts and engaged in late night study session.

The English language has a fascinating history. Understanding its roots, and the principals behind word foundation, punctuation and grammar has helped my writing in innumerable ways. Your writing becomes more rich. You understand how the proper adjective can make or break a piece. You can make the world hang on a period.

As one of my teacher’s once lecture to us, “A good writer breaks the rules, but he has to know the rules first so that he can break them.”

In the end, Alexie has a point, fixation on proper grammar can hinder creativity. Often very technically correct work that lacks imagination or innovation is uninspiring.

But what Alexie ignores is that grammar knowledge  can also enhance writing.  Knowing when to use grammar rules and when to break them enhances and adds variety with writing as does knowing the varying nuances of word history and definition.

In my opinion, it is both creativity, and a knowledge of the grammar rules (and when to break them) that makes a truly skilled writer.

Which do you think is more important, grammar or creativity? Or a combination of both?

32 comments on “Grammar Nazism vs Creative Writing

  1. God does use grammar and created it so’s we can understand at least a little about What and Who He Is. ANSWER: One needs at least SOME grammar for people to understand and best appreciate one’s creativity. Come to “my place” and see!!!! 🙂

  2. I think by specifying ‘grammar cops,’ Alexie’s calling out the people who conflate technical perfection with a good story. I’ve seen people go through a piece and point out all the sentence fragments and dialect-based errors, so I’m totally with him on that attitude. But I agree that you should know enough of the rules to know when you’re breaking them 😛

  3. this is something that seems to crop up time and time again amongst writers. I do err on the side of creativity over correctness, but beyond either of those is clarity. Poor grammar and rigidly correct grammar both often become problematic for the same reason, at least for me, and that is when comprehension is hindered. Following the rules in that oft misquoted way that Churchill is alleged to have done, ‘ this is something up with I will not put’, does not always lead to better sense.

    Language it should be remembered is all about communicating. As writers what we are trying to communicate is often complex and covering ground that’s never been trod on before, so we have to bend language to fit.

    Good post.

  4. A topic after my own heart. I believe a good writer only breaks the rules successfully when it is clear THAT they have been broken deliberately, and WHY they have been broken. Here we have the difference between clumsiness and wordplay.
    Innovations in language which reduce the ability of it to convey subtle meanings are, to my mind, retrogressive. The ‘dumbed down’ language of many popular novelists perpetuates laziness in the reader, and so becomes a vicious circle.

  5. Balance is definitely necessary, but I lean toward the creative side because it is so much less a headache.

  6. Creative writing isn’t all about imagination and ”art”. It’s also about craftsmanship, too. You could have brilliant renderings of a house, but if it doesn’t work structurally and collapses then what do you have in the end other then a heap of rubble? No different then having creative ideas but lacking in fundamental grammar, you just have a mess.

  7. Great post! In my opinion, you need both, but creativity comes first. One shouldn’t worry about grammar while creating (unless it’s so horrendous you can’t make sense of what you wrote). When you’re happy with it, then go back and correct the grammar, or have someone proofread it and correct it for you. Bad grammar, especially significant mistakes, can take a reader out of the story. On the other hand, intentional bad grammar in dialogue or narration can be a great way to communicate a character’s background etc. Either way, creativity first.

  8. Great post! 🙂 I’d rather read an amazing story where the author had no knowledge of grammar than to read a grammatically correct book where the author had zero creativity. Fortunately, this isn’t a choice we have to make.

    I also agree with the previous comment about craftsmanship.

  9. I have a really creative daughter who cannot spell, has been known to need help with her sentence structure but has an excellent imagination. She is 33 years old, never could do well with English or Spelling but is an amazing story teller, artist and mother who instills creativity in her 2 sons. I have to say, if she were to get “famous” someone could edit her stories, knowing that some of those thoughts are far better than SOME of the ones who are following all the rules. If you read my blog, it will be very rare to see an error in language, etc. but it may not be as fascinating as hers would be… Wonder how many of the famous books we love to read were written with a lot of editing assistance?

  10. Pingback: Grammar Nazism vs Creative Writing | Skipping Stars Productions LLC

  11. You wouldn’t believe the arguments I have had with other writers just over the use of “Chicago Writing Style” over “Freeform” and breaking ‘writing rules.’ I’m always amazed at writers who think there ARE rules. Seriously. Are you writing a textbook? People don’t READ textbooks!

  12. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Re-posted to tokyoaaron’s blog.

    As a writer and teacher (middle and high school English and ESL), I have two – not contradictory! – thoughts about the importance of grammar in writing. As a writer, I have by now absorbed enough grammar that I don’t worry about it any more; my focus instead is on rhythm and flow, which has more to do with syntax and punctuation than grammar. As a teacher, I remind my students on a regular basis that writing, the kind we talk about in class, is written for other people, and that grammar mistakes diminish the experience for our readers: every subject/verb disagreement or accidental shift in tense distracts from what we want to say. Personally, I learned grammar through extensive reading and writing, which is effective but takes a long time; in hindsight, I wish I had been given more direct instruction in school. I try to provide my student with all three…

  13. Pingback: Grammar Nazism vs Creative Writing | tokyoaaron's blog

  14. “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”
    ― Albert Einstein
    Thank you for stopping by’

  15. Thanks for the like on my 50th Post, 200 Follows, and Award. We have a lot in common. Since you ask where I stand….I already answered in the writing series I just wrapped up. I don’t want to take up a lot of your time, but here are just a few sergments from the series so you don’t have to dig.

    I interjected the series with the analysis of a (lovvvveeely) Yeats poem that breaks a writing dictum of mine.

    The principle of mastering rules before breaking them applies to any art. Music, in particular – esp in composition (just as in word composition).

    Enjoying your blog.

  16. Great post. As a teacher, I’m bothered by people who think there are no rules when writing. Grammar and punctuation, spelling and capitalization are all parts of the rules of writing. Everything we do in life has rules, whether it is driving the car, cooking, playing games, painting, and yes, writing. Can you break the rules? Absolutely. But just because you can throw paint at a canvas doesn’t make you Jackson Pollack. A skilled writer (or painter, or race car driver) can break the rules and make it work for them. There is a big difference between breaking a rule for a purpose though, and breaking a rule because you didn’t know it was a rule. I can tell you from first hand experience, that there is a big difference between reading e.e. cummings and a 7th grader who never learned why the comma was invented.

  17. Too much emphasis on grammar can make a piece stilted or seem affectatious. However, too little regard for grammar can obscure the message. Further, the effort to use prescribed grammar should be based on the purpose for which one is writing and the audience at whom one is directing the piece. (Like how I did that? ‘Cause a preposition is the wrong word to end a sentence with!) There is a harmonious land between too much and too little and a great author will be able to set foot there gracefully.

  18. Great post! Like so many things in life, I find a little of both is required. I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi myself, so I find that bad grammar can absolutely ruin a piece of writing for me. I don’t mean minor things, but when it’s obvious the person hasn’t read a piece back to themselves because it’s hard to work out what they mean without going over the same sentence three times. On the other hand, too much worrying about grammar can constrict otherwise good writing. Words need space to breathe!

    I always find it useful to remember that the natural state of language is, in fact, speech. Writing on a widespread scale is still a relatively new invention, and many of the rules of grammar were only brought in at this time. They were intended to act as a set of guidelines for explaining language; not a box to lock it in.

  19. Ah, I saw Alexie’s tweet, I remember that. I assumed he referred not to people who understand how grammar works, but to “grammar cops” *only*, that is, the individuals who will read a 5,000-word eulogy on the life of the someone’s late brother and leave comments like “You used the word ‘to’ in line 8, paragraph 19, when you meant ‘too’.”

    A friend of mine was once left pretty upset because he opened up in a personal way on his blog, which is rare for him, and someone decided to call him out on the typo in the post’s title. My friend deleted the post before I even got a chance to read it.

    There are those who rarely seem to actually write anything except criticisms of everyone else’s smallest keyboard mistakes. I figure Alexie tweeted about that.

  20. Oh my gosh, I get HAMMERED on the passive voice from my history professors. 😦 The thing is, I see it in academic journals and textbooks all the time! So I am going to use it in my textbook too! Take that!

  21. Pingback: Grammar Nazism vs Creative Writing | JC Lynne

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