Everything You Need to Know About Grammar in Six Minutes
I left school at sixteen and entered technical college, the place where I learned to solder components, weld joints, and do calculus (go figure). Then I went to university and studied engineering so intensely that, apart from law and management, the only other non-technical subject I took was a mandatory technical writing class. In that class I learned how to explain that the sprocket must be inserted into the chamfered vestibule and then rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise.
It was only in my thirties, while struggling through a heart-wrenching divorce, that I learned to really write, but only so that I could spill my guts into a blog that no more than a dozen people would read. During that time, I also learned to write about strange esoteric, and probably metaphorical, experiences such as how “the universe snuck into my bedroom last night.”¹ I also became enamored with grammar, and apparently also a little aware of alliteration. I studied books and courses on grammar, which I covered in How I Write Stories that Go Viral².
And now I’ve written a helluva lot, and I’ve crafted my style. I’ve honed my process, and learned how to find my groove. After all of that, just recently, I’ve been realizing how simple grammar really is. It’s one of those subjects that they make a meal out of in middle-school and high-school. “We’re going to study this endlessly, as if my job depends on it,” the English language teacher seemed to say over my self-critical inner dialog. But, just like basic algebra, good grammar is the kind of thing you could actually learn over a weekend with an internet connection to Khan Academy and a six-pack of beer.
Except that, for grammar, not even a weekend is needed; this is a six-minute job. After all those years of grafting and slogging I stand before you as the embodied distillation of endless struggles with a topic that seems to puzzle and frustrate even the smartest of the internet age. My goal is to spill forth a cornucopia of grammatical terseness such that you might then generate both correct and engaging sentences until the end of time, and beyond. So, let’s begin.
As we all learned at some point in our lives, a sentence is a single complete and unambiguous thought that contains a subject, an object, and a verb. For example:
John picked up the cat.
John is the subject; the cat is the object; to-pick-up is the verb. That’s it. Done.
Adjectives color-in nouns.
John picked up the furry cat.
“Furry” provides more information about the cat. Adverbs do the same thing for verbs:
John quickly picked up the furry cat.
Splicing Sentences with Commas
Unless you want to write like a stereotypical Ernest Hemingway, you can make your writing much more enjoyable by splicing ideas together.
John picked up the cat. The cat had been hiding in the bushes.
These two sentences can be combined by recognizing that there is a common element (the cat):
John picked up the cat, which had been hiding in the bushes.
The cat was the object in one sentence and the subject in the other. We infer that the “which” applies to the cat; John had probably not been the one who had been hiding in the bushes. Now, one of the most important aspects of a great sentence is that it’s understandable. An understandable sentence is one in which the reader never gets lost. The previous sentence might be improved like this:
John picked up his cat, the cat which had been hiding in the bushes.
Even though this is only one sentence, it’s a sentence that contains more words than the original two sentences combined. But that’s okay because it’s actually much more enjoyable to read. It’s more enjoyable because it a single but more complex thought, yet it’s a thought that can be understood. It can be understood because it has been crafted to be easily digestible.
By the way, despite Hemingway having a reputation for writing very short sentences, he actually wrote some very long ones³. You can use the technique I just showed you to write excellent, long sentences, like this one:
On that cold morning in May, John was standing in his garden, standing and calmly surveying the dense shrubbery along its perimeter, scanning for the only thing he really loved, scanning for his beloved little furry friend, standing in the cold and searching for his cat.
In this sentence, “John” and “garden” are re-used, and both “standing” and “scanning” are repeatedly recalled to generate an experience of searching.
You’ve seen me use commas to splice together sentences and you may have also noticed me using them to bracket asides. An aside is a peripheral statement that explicates the sentence, a statement that could appear in various places in the sentence or could be excluded entirely.
That cold spring morning, John picked up the cat.
John picked up the cat, that cold spring morning.
John, that cold spring morning, picked up the cat.
That last one is nasty; don’t do it. These kinds of asides, except when inserted at the start of the sentence, could be bracketed-out using parentheses (like this). To make them stand-out even more clearly—like this—it might be preferable to use a hyphen or two.
When two or more are gathered together, that is a list (not a party).
John had three cats, three cats named Jemima, Tabitha, and Nordstrom.
Items in a list of three or more are separated by commas. Two items can be separated simply by an “and.” The last two items in a list of more than two items should be separated by a comma followed by an “and,” as shown above. That comma is known as the Oxford comma, but only because it first appeared at Cambridge University (just kidding)⁴. I always use the Oxford comma and I recommend that you always use it too. With out the Oxford comma, things like this can happen:
John loved hunting, his family, and his cat.
John loved hunting, his family and his cat.
The first sentence, which uses the Oxford comma, unambiguously asserts that John loved three things, all of them somewhat unrelated. The second sentence, on the other hand, could suggest that John is a psychopath, a suggestion that could be disambiguated using tools I have already given you:
John loved hunting, hunting both his family and his cat.
The repetition of “hunting” mostly resolves the ambiguity and the addition of “both” makes it crystal clear that John is all about hunting not only his family but also his cat. I highly recommend noticing and removing any and all ambiguities that might inadvertently arise and arrest you in your writing.
One more thing about lists that I noticed recently: there’s a rule about lists of adjectives that involves commas, a rule that is basically the same as the standard list rule I just gave you:
John picked up the fat, brown, lazy cat.
Writing this right now, I’m realizing that you can make that string of adjectives into a classic list containing a comma-and:
John picked up the fat, brown, and lazy cat.
Like a lot of writing, which to use is a style choice. The “and” slows the reader down a little before getting to the lazy cat, which gives her more time to digest the adjectives and build an appetite for the noun.
Use Commas Sparingly
I routinely extract extra commas from my compositions after realizing that I added them habitually in a way that didn’t contribute to the comprehension. Excess commas complicate the consumption of your carefully crafted creations. You shouldn’t need to add them very much beyond splicing sentences, adding asides, and enumerating lists.
Colons, Semi-Colons, and Transverse Colons
Even though I sometimes use colons and semi-colons, I’ve pretty much forgotten the rules for them. Nevertheless, the rules are pretty simple and, once you’ve played with them a bit, you’ll soon know when and how to correctly utilize them automatically; just like riding a bike.
Further study of colons and semi-colons is left as an exercise for the reader, which is you. To understand transverse colons, I recommend studying medicine.
That’s it. We’re done here. I no longer serve any useful purpose but to entertain and amuse. May you now go forth and bespatter the world with your newfound grammatical grandiosity.