Friday, December 20, 2013

I Didn't Learn Grammar From a Box Mix (Part One)

It's always an awkward conversation.

"Dang, girl, your adjective usage is insane!"
"Really?" I say. "That's cool. But I don't know what an adjective is."
"What? You've got to be kidding!"

Odd, right? I'm a soon-to-be-published author who teaches English and creative writing, and I don't know the definition of an adjective. Oh. It sounds even worse when I write it. Here's another shocker. I also don't know what a preposition or contradiction is.

I was never taught punctuation or grammar.


In elementary school, my mom handed me workbooks and left me alone to learn grammar on my own. I understood some of it, sure, but most of my workbooks were left empty, or scribbled on with pictures of mermaids and elves. Definitely scribbled on.

Mom knew there was a problem. She knew I wasn't understanding it. But when I came to her, explaining my woes, she told me I was a reader and I'd figure it out.


I first recognized the extent of my problem in middle school, when Mom put me in a writing class. I was praised for everything I penned and always got A's, but unlike my writing comrades, there were red marks all over my papers.

I fell in love with creative writing that year, and decided I wanted to start writing books. I wrote a 30,000 word story at twelve called Nothing Left but Hope, and another story of the same length a year later. Midway through my second book, When we Reach the Sunset, I decided it was time to get serious, since I knew I wanted to be a writer. I typed, "where does a comma go?" into a Google search engine. The information I found was of no use to me, however, since I had no idea what an independent clause was supposed to be. I continued to research, but found nothing. Grammatical rules seemed so...gross to me. In fact, trying to untangle them slaughtered my creativity.

So I started guessing.

That's right.

I threw commas into my e-mails, letters, and books wherever I thought they might fit. If a sentence sounded altogether wrong, I rewrote it until it was right. Back then, I read at least three novels per week, and in my books, I began observing where the writers tossed in commas, and where they refrained. I learned the difference between "There," "Their," and "They're" not by filling my head with rules and definitions, but by observing what I read and applying it to my own writing. If I had a question about whether or not to use "Course" or "coarse," I consulted my books.

I guessed until I got it right.

By the time I was fifteen, my grammar and punctuation had improved greatly, though I didn't realize it. I just hoped. I wrote Reaching Home when I was sixteen, and had the opportunity to go through it with my writing teacher before sending it out to publishers.

And do you know what? To my utter amazement, my writing teacher said my punctuation and grammar usage looked great! Sure, there were some holes, but they were easily filled and fixed. I learned quickly, soaking it all in. A few months later, I sent my book in to the publishers, completely unsure what to expect, and quite nervous about my alleged lack of knowledge. A few weeks later, I received a note from an editor. He outlined what he liked and didn't like about my book. Here's what he said about my punctuation and grammar:

There are a few spelling and grammar errors, but generally speaking, Stephanie has proofed it better than I’ve seen from other sources. I couldn’t fault the punctuation, and that surprises me because there is so much; maybe I missed some.

I can see the headline now: seventeen-year-old never taught punctuation or grammar wows editors.

Imagine my excitement.

Does this seem odd to you? What do you think about following the "rules" of education? Do you think I took the correct approach? Would you do it yourself? I want to know what you think! Leave a comment below.

Also, stick around for part two about why I think the principles I learned through grammar are so important now.



  1. This is me, too! My knowledge of English grammar comes from what I figured out while reading and what I had to learn while studying Latin grammar. In my Latin class, I looked at sentence examples my teacher gave us to figure out how to use the words in ways she hadn't taught us yet, but when I showed her what I'd figured out and she told me I was right, I had to admit that I'd never heard of a direct object. To me, the rules of grammar are pretty much just "what sounds right?" (and with that I got a 35 on the English section of the ACT the first time I took it, and I'd never taken a standardized test before). I love hearing that there's someone else like me in this regard!

    1. Hi Emma! Thanks for visiting!

      Isn't it so much fun to think outside the box? Learning grammar the normal way would have been a great deal easier, but definitely not as fun or as challenging. :)