Grammar—who needs it? Trick question. The answer is everyone. For example: I'm using grammar right now. Excellent grammar. You will use grammar momentarily when you share this article on your social media platforms, proclaiming: "You guys, grammar is super important."
The team at Melbourne writing studio/bookshop/library/four-colour-pen provider The Good Copy know that—which is why they're starting Stop. Grammar Time., a cool short grammar course for adults. With space available in their March and April classes, they will make sure you never fuck up again. We asked their editorial director Penny Modra why it's worth finally learning where the semicolon is supposed to go.
VICE: Hi Penny. Why is grammar important in 2015?
Penny Modra: It can be quite liberating I think. Because you think you know how to write but there is a whole lot of white noise that you don't really acknowledge. And there's an anxiety that comes with: Is that comma right? Why are there so many 'ofs' in this sentence?
Also if someone finds a mistake in your work they can't help but think you're dumb. Little mistakes can be very destructive.
Exactly, and as you write, those little pinpricks of vague confusion can really increase the anxiety associated with writing. At least when I studied grammar at TAFE I felt a weight lift, I felt clarity, and I definitely felt more confident—which was something I didn't predict at the beginning.
Penny making up for gaps in your education.
How come pretty much all adults, no matter their education, don't really understand this stuff?
It's to do with the Australian school curriculum—certainly I don't remember being taught 'subject, verb, object' at school. The only time I remember that is when I was learning another language in Year 7. So I don't think my generation (I'm 36) was taught that. Was your generation taught that?
I remember being asked to circle verbs in a sentence, but it wasn't more than an afternoon of work. And I didn't learn the difference between an en dash and an em dash. I learnt most of that in Spanish class.
That's right. I think it's to do with the government (laughs).
What's your biggest pet peeve?
My boyfriend is a graphic designer, and he says he'll never talk to me about kerning, because once I know about kerning my whole life will be ruined because every poster I look at will irritate me. So I'm reluctant to dangle my albatross around someone else's neck. But a lot of things annoy me—the classic one is the dangling modifier. Once you're able to identify it, it's everywhere—it's very often on the news.
Totally. What is that?
It's when you don't match up the main subject of the sentence to the modifying phrase at the beginning. So the classic example is: 'Having recorded the album, my coffee machine is a welcome sight.' What you're trying to say is: 'I've finished recording and now I want to have a coffee.' But the dangling modifier makes it sound like your coffee machine recorded the album.
It's often in writing because squeezing a modifier on the front allows you to put more into the sentence. Writers use them a lot.
And because it doesn't immediately sound wrong to the ear, they're easy to miss.
I suppose that's the difference between spoken grammar and written grammar. But there is a big leap between talking and writing. I suppose the reason we need grammar and punctuation rules is because when we're writing we can't really do things like pause, or make eye contact, or scowl. All of that needs to be communicated in punctuation.
So punctuation is making up for your face.
It is. And also the expression in your voice. So I suppose if someone said to you 'What is grammar?', the answer is different in spoken and written English. But grammar is the rules that we're all born with—when we learn language, we understand what order to say the words in. I suppose you just need to enforce those things more when you're writing.
Some people might think this is going to be pretty dry stuff. How are you going to make this fun, or at least bearable, for a number of hours?
It's a tall order. These days it costs $400 to do a two-hour screen-printing workshop; how can grammar compete with screen-printing? Well, we do have a lot of mash-ups (laughs)—you know, mash-ups of dangling modifiers on the SBS news. Does that sound exciting?
We've got fun exercises—oh, you get a patch when you graduate. You get free and bottomless cups of coffee... Does this sweeten the deal?
That actually sounds pretty awesome.
Essentially it is quite nerdy, but I co-present the classes with Max [Olijnyk] who sort of plays the comic-relief character. He has been in charge of all the introductory slides, which I think take us down a few pegs. For example, for the preposition section, he's just got the movie poster from The Proposition. We're keeping it light.
In the age of spell and grammar checks, why is this something that people should spend their cash on?
It's sort of like getting your licence in an automatic car versus having a semi-rigid vehicle licence. You know that in a disaster, you're going to be able to take over that truck. There's something happening about that.
So in a technological apocalypse you can still write a thank-you note to someone.
Yes, exactly. Don't you want to feel that sense of command over Microsoft Word?
Yeah I do. Also the grammar check really trails behind spellcheck in terms of dependability.
It corrects things incorrectly sometimes, and you don't want to rely on that.
And it's always trying to get you to put in a semicolon.
It added a semicolon to a list of things I wrote in dot points yesterday. If you know anything about a dot-point list, it's that the very dot-pointing of the list item acts as the semicolon. And aside from that, the clauses that comprise my list don't have internal punctuation!
So annoying. I think what people don't understand about grammar is that once you get it, it's pretty relaxing.
I totally agree, it's calming. Although we try not to be too prescriptive because language evolves and you don't want to sound like you're from 1890 saying you can't start a sentence with a conjunction, because that's not true.
We teach grammar the way you would teach music. You don't teach music by giving people a whole set of stuff you can't do—you have to empower people to play the guitar. We try teach grammar in a way that's empowering. So ultimately when you find some sort of quandary, you'll be able to go: I elect to solve it this way.
March and April classes are now on sale.
Follow Wendy on Twitter: @Wendywends