Words matter. An appreciation of their subtle power is vital for anyone who seeks to use them.
David Hewson, Writing: A User Manual (2012)
This book is for writers: anyone who gathers words together in order to educate, or to entertain or to inform. Words — and the ways in which they combine and mingle in a phrase, a statement, a sentence or a paragraph — are the essential tools of any writer’s workbox: the ways in which they are grouped become the author’s ’style’. They can be used to be concise and precise or deliberately to obfuscate or shock, to confuse or amuse.
Between these pages are definitions, wordlists and the ’rules’ of English grammar — how language is structured, how words are used and spelt and the typical ways in which sentences can be arranged and punctuated. Rules can be straitjackets. Creative writers — novelists, dramatists and poets — know that rules exist to be broken and circumvented. For example, the standard approach when punctuating speech in a novel might be to include single or double quotation marks, usually so it is clear who is speaking to allow the reader to follow the narrative. An experienced and talented writer can overturn such a convention for stylistic effect, to create greater immediacy and naturalistic speech patterns. An inexperienced writer might find it sensible to adhere to the conventions until they are more used to marshalling their text. Knowing the standard styles, formats and usage can be helpful. Once mastered they might be successfully sidestepped. Being au fait with grammatical norms makes life easier for you as a writer in your efforts to convey mood and meaning in prose.
This book is not a checklist of what you should follow every time you put pen to paper or tap on a keyboard. It is a celebration of words in all their magnificence. The English language makes claim to more than a million words, including terms that have fallen out of use and variant forms, of which it is estimated that around 170,000 are in current use. This lexicon can be fashioned and bent to each writer’s will to evoke atmosphere, tone, tension, emotion and meaning to suit their narrative.
Words change and usage develops. New words get created, others die back to become archaisms or anachronisms or less legitimate forms to do with shifts in spelling or meaning because of fashion or changes in culture and society. But there remain some underlying and unifying patterns and facts about grammar, structure, forms and the terms we use to describe these elements. You don’t need to know the definition of an oxymoron or chiasmus to make use of such literary devices effectively. You won’t be judged wanting if you are unaware that a sentence can include a subject, a predicate, and subordinate clauses or that there are five basic types of adverb. You can be a skilled writer who has great command of their work, and not know or care what transitivity means or how to identify an auxiliary verb. (Though you can find out what these are in this book’s Glossary.)
But knowledge of parts of speech and punctuation, literary devices, clichés to avoid for example, combined with an interest in how words are formed might make you understand your craft better. This knowledge is likely to improve your writing and might mean you enjoy being a writer even more.
Why does grammar matter to the writer? Apart from the joy that words can bring, it matters because text should be meaningful and achieve what it sets out to do for the audience for which it is intended. The right word is le mot juste for the context in which it is used. It’s the word that feels right and reads right to its writer-creator and to its readers.