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Anna Williams

Grammar Affairs

Illustration of hands over an open lined notebook, correcting text errors with a red pen.
Illustration of hands over an open lined notebook, correcting text errors with a red pen.
Dmitry Volkov ©

A rocky beginning

I’ve had a love-hate, on-again, off-again relationship with grammar over the years. When I was in school I truly despised it. Sentence diagramming and prepositions were the banes of my existence. I loved reading, spelling and creative writing, but grammar was a (supposedly) necessary evil.

The problem was that I just didn’t see the point of it. I could tell if a sentence was right, and if it wasn’t, then I knew how to fix it. Why learn all the meaningless names and rules when I could already read and write?

This perspective changed when I worked as a proofreader at a daily newspaper. I enjoyed the work, but suddenly I was on the spot trying to explain subject-verb agreement. I discovered a newfound appreciation for grammar pundits.


In university, one of my first-year classes was dedicated entirely to grammar. Although I had a new interest in the subject, I was still wary of three-hour grammar lectures every Wednesday. To my great surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed them. All those rules finally seemed relevant, and at every turn I experienced “Aha!” moments where I suddenly had a name for something that I’d already known. Finally, I’d reconnected with grammar.

Over the years of my freelancing career we’ve come to a mutually agreeable arrangement. I’m not a grammar pedant, and there are still occasions where I scratch my head over verb tenses, but my old antipathy is long gone.


One day, I stumbled across an article that validated those early, rocky years of grammar. “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” discusses how studies have shown that formal grammar training can do more harm than good, causing students to develop an aversion to high school English and a fear of making mistakes. On the flip side, students who didn’t follow a grammar curriculum but were exposed to more literature and creative writing still possessed the same English skills, but lacked the grammar hang-ups. The upshot is that it’s possible — maybe even ideal — to learn grammar from reading and writing rather than sentence diagramming.

Share your relationship tips

What do you think? Have you enjoyed a long-term rapport with grammar? Share your pet peeves, tips and success stories below.


Previous post from Anna Williams: Letter From the Editor: Passing on the Torch

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Anna Williams

Anna Williams is a freelance technical editor, writer and consultant in Edmonton, Alberta. She was the managing editor of the Editors’ Weekly from 2013 to 2020.


15 Comments on “Grammar Affairs”

  • Anita Jenkins


    So good to see the former blog editor back, wearing another hat. A charming piece.

    • Thanks, Anita. 🙂

  • Like you, I instinctively «knew» what was grammatically correct (in most cases) from being a prolific reader. However, I discovered when I became an English tutor for ESL students that I needed to be able to explain grammar rules clearly, using the correct words. Ironically, learning French up to first-year university level made it easier for me to understand the rules of English grammar. It was from learning French grammar that I was familiar with the vocabulary of grammar (names of tenses, etc.).

    • Tim Green


      I had a similar experience. I really understood English grammar much better after having learned French. And after having written lots of software where one either gets immediate feedback on grammar shortcomings or one struggles with the consequences after the fact.

      • Thank you for commenting, Nancy and Tim. And yes, I agree, learning another language can shed a whole new light on grammatical construction!

  • In Grade 6 our English teacher wrote sentences on the board and called us up to diagram them. I had no idea what she was talking about, but others in the class would go up and draw lines and label them with (looked to me to be) random letters. After a dozen times of my trying to imitate what the others were doing, she threw up her hands and announced, «You’ve been diagraming sentences for six years! It’s as if you’ve never seen a sentence before! Are you mocking me?» And I finally confessed that I had no idea what she was talking about, that I had never seen whatever it was she was doing until her. That gave her pause. Turned out she and the majority of the class had transferred to our school when their school had closed for renovations. She had assumed that our school was on the same curriculum but my teachers had elected not to do the one with diagraming. To her credit, she apologized profusely for having berated me and the six others in the class who had no experience with patterning, but by then it was too late and I pretty much tuned out of grammar as a subject. I wrote well enough to succeed in class without knowing why anything had to be the way I knew was right, so she stopped trying to teach me.

    Now as an editor, I do sometimes regret I have holes in my ability to articulate why this or that sentence is wrong. (One reason for my having five other editors available on staff.) But that experience has stood me in good stead in understanding writer’s block. In my experience, the problem many people, even successful writers, find themselves stuck is because the ghost of their Grade 6 Language Arts teacher is standing over their shoulder saying, «that’s wrong, don’t write that!» My writer’s block workshop consists mostly of an exorcism.

    • Thanks for your comment, Robert, and for that great story! Yes, that’s exactly it, people become easily paralyzed for fear of doing something «wrong.» Re: your exorcisms – LOL!

  • Carla DeSantis


    Thanks for writing this blog, Anna. I believe that it is important for editors to have a firm grasp of grammatical concepts and not just go by «ear,» so to speak. It is important to understand how and why the syntax fits together if you are going to correct it. I actually really enjoyed sentence diagramming in grade 8, and then forgot about the nuances of English grammar for a while. However, my many subsequent years of studying Latin required a firm analysis and understanding of grammar on a regular basis, which has of course spilled over to English. I see it as one of the essential tools in the editor’s tool kit.

    • Thanks for commenting, Carla. I completely agree – although many of us know things «by ear,» it’s essential to have an understanding of grammar in order to make corrections to someone else’s work (and justify them!). What I’ve always found interesting is how my antipathy for grammar in those early years didn’t hamper my love of language as a whole. It seems I just wasn’t ready for sentence diagramming until a later age. 🙂

  • I had the same experience as you, Anna. I’d have laughed in disbelief in Grade 8 if someone had told me that someday my job would involve correcting grammar! It was only much later, when I fell in love with the idea of reading for a living, that I suddenly developed both the interest in and ability to understand grammar.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dawn! Yes, the contrast between my teenage self, grinding my teeth over sentence diagramming, and myself in university classes eagerly studying sentence structure would be quite striking! 🙂

  • Like you, Anna, I already knew (by ear) when something was wrong and how to fix it. I once developed a grammar course for the University of Alberta called «It Just Sounds Right.»

    Unlike you, I fell in love with grammar from the first diagram. With grammar, I could see how the whole machine worked.

    It wasn’t until I began working with words, challenging what they said as well as how they said it, that I realized the true power of grammar. It reveals so much about the thinking behind even the tidiest sentences.

    If we see grammar as a tool for fixing grammar, there’s little point in knowing the technical details, especially for those of us who just know when it sounds right. Strong grammar skills are so much more than that. They are a tool for thinking.

    • Very nicely said, Virginia! Thanks for commenting.
      «It reveals so much about the thinking behind even the tidiest sentences.» This is what finally clicked for me when I started relearning grammar in university. I’m sure I would have loved your «It Just Sounds Right» course.

  • «They are a tool for thinking»–I’ve never thought about grammar skills quite that way! It makes sense, though, because I know the truth of «You can’t write something clearly if the idea you are trying to express is not clear in your own mind.»

  • Shirley Rennie


    I’m 62. When I was in school, we learned to parse a sentence, and to underline different parts of the sentence with different kinds of lines, but until now I had not heard of diagramming a sentence. It appears that the teaching of grammar has been making a comeback in recent years. I’m glad, because at one point there seemed to be a whole generation of young editors who had never had the chance to learn formal rules of grammar, and struggled to explain why something was or was not correct, or why it needed to be changed. And I agree, there is nothing like learning another language to help solidify the grammar concepts of your own.

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