Grammar, and the Importance Thereof

For a long time, I’ve used Grammarly on my computer. It acts as a spellchecker and grammar checker, but works across the whole of Windows 11, not just the Microsoft Office suite. Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company telling me how well I’ve been writing in the previous seven days. Let’s take a look at the one from yesterday.

That claims I was more productive than 76% of Grammarly users, was more accurate than 78%, and used more unique words than 81%. I have a streak when I’ve used the software for 124 weeks in a row, so there’s a lot of data to mine from that. It also points out my most common errors, but it must be stated that around half of these are stylistic differences from what the programmers expect. For example, I would write ‘6pm’ and not ‘6 PM’, and with the free version, there’s no way to inform them that’s just how I write.

I routinely watch educational videos on YouTube, and over the last few weeks, I’ve stumbled across a language tutor called Olly Richards. His method of teaching is what he dubs the StoryLearning method, in which learners are encouraged to read materials in the target language and hold conversations with native speakers – and to be less concerned by individual words, phrases and sentence construction. His view is that the grammar of a language will be learnt naturally through everyday use.

I’ve been considering how this applies to the English language. In everyday conversation, few people think about every word they say, and the general sense will usually shine through even when the words aren’t precise or are in an unusual order.

When I’m writing this blog, on the other hand, the words will probably hang around for some years. As such, I feel it important to maintain a decent standard of writing, especially as the subject is prose and poetry. Grammarly is one of the tools I use for this, but it isn’t the only one.

I drafted this entry on the evening of Monday 16 May, and I came back to it this evening. I redrafted the previous paragraph to include another relevant point, and I deleted two instances of ‘and’ right next to each other. I consider that time away from the writing to invaluable for spotting such errors.

When the Ephemeral Becomes Lasting

Having been on the comedy circuit since 1994, Janey Godley has risen to far greater prominence over the last couple of years.

For a long time, she’s been overdubbing footage of politicians with a humourous counter-narrative. But these really took off when she applied this to the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, giving COVID-19 briefings. Here’s an example that’s not safe for work.

Early in the series, a number of running catchphrases were established, many of which appeared to be improvised. One of them caught on more than any other, namely ‘Frank, get the door’, which was said as the First Minister left the stage. Godley has now used this as the title of a compilation book.

I’m sure everyone’s been at an event or gathering where an in-joke was established and built upon as the night went on. Most often, the joke is forgotten in a day or two, but sometimes it carries on, gaining arms and legs along the way.

A good example is from a poetry pal. Ross McCleary runs a Twitter account where the majority of the material revolves around recurring themes, including – but not limited to – the video for the Robbie Williams track Rock DJ, Hump Day as a nickname for Wednesday, Infinite Jest, and LinkedIn cliches.

Yesterday, I took part in an impromptu discussion surrounding another account called Edinburgh Watch, known for constantly retweeting messages from the city. Ross jokingly suggested writing a poetry show about ‘the death of Edinburgh Watch’, with other people suggesting elements that the narrative could have.

However, he’s also one to round up collaborators and take seemingly silly ideas to fruition. Previous projects have included reading poetry dressed as pandas, and a show set in the same universe as the old Fererro Rocher adverts.

It’s entirely possible, therefore, that something lasting might come from all this idle joking about Edinburgh Watch, and I look forward to seeing the end product.

A Summary of Summary

Last week, I made a major edit to a Wikipedia entry for the first time in years. The page in question was about the defunct Roodyards railway station in Dundee. Although no evidence of the station survives, I had a picture illustrating its approximate location, so I posted it.

Back when the site was still a novelty, I used to make contributions on a regular basis. I created my account in May 2006, although I did make edits before that date.

Whenever a page is changed, the person who made that change is expected to leave a summary sentence about the amendment. Some of my early ones include:

  • ‘Removed Stub status, since there is sufficient material regarding this song.’, for the Ben Folds Five track Brick.
  • ‘Corrected spelling of Kaiser Chiefs.’
  • ‘Added Differences from the book section.’ about the BBC series Hotel Babylon.
  • ‘Removed Young Lochee Fleet vandalism.’ after a page was maliciously edited.
  • ‘Made page into a disambiguation page, since the two Dairyleas are separate entities.’ for two companies that have the same name.

I even created a complex word association game called Word Before Last that is no longer popular, but is still a live page. Other users have not only continued the game, but even created extra branches and expanded the rules for clarity. There is robust documentation behind the scenes about the changes made at each stage.

For the last ten years, I’ve been working in jobs where I’ve been required to write reports. Looking back, those Wikipedia contributions offered vital practice in writing summaries of my findings. It’s a difficult skill to teach, but the main question to answer is, ‘What can be removed while still conveying the same message?’

It might sound strange, but that same principle of summary also works for poetry. This morning, the humourist Brian Bilston published a very short verse about a duvet.

He could quite easily have written many more lines about wanting to stay in bed because it was comfortable. In just four lines, however, he encapsulates his thoughts, and there is an effective implication of the comfort without needing to spell it out.