Many students come to the Regional Writing Centre at the University of Limerick wanting help with sentence structure, paraphrasing, writing concise sentences and/or punctuation, probably in response to teachers’ comments on their papers. The truth of the matter, however, is that before we can help the students who come with these requests, we would have to go back to the basics of grammar with them. It is not possible to understand why a fragment is a fragment, why a paraphrase is perilously close to plagiaristic or how it could be less plagiaristic, how a sentence can be made more concise or how to use punctuation without understanding grammatical structures.
Unfortunately for the students whose papers are due the next day or even the following week, the time that it takes to acquire that kind of basic grammar knowledge is too lengthy. It is, therefore, wisest for writers, whether they are writing for academic assessment, for business or for personal reasons, to continually pursue more and more grammar knowledge as they go.
Why is grammar so important? We could choose examples from any of the issues above already mentioned: sentence structuring problems, paraphrasing, writing concisely or punctuation. But let’s look at an example from punctuation. Many people are misinformed about the role played by punctuation, and I can cite many examples of misused commas, colons and semi-colons. Let’s look at commas as a way of demonstrating the importance of understanding sentence grammar.
There is much disinformation and disagreement about when commas should be deployed. I have read articles that associated commas with breathing, where we naturally pause for a breath between phrases when we speak or read aloud. My problem with this idea, though there is some basis in fact for this notion, is that evidence should show that smokers and asthmatics use more commas than marathon runners. No such evidence exists.
Though there are times when we insert commas to clarify meaning, for the most part, commas tell readers how the sentence should be read, how it should mean. The most well-known example, “Let’s eat Grandma!”, for instance, is ambiguous. Is Grandma the object of eat? Or is someone delivering an imperative to Grandma? “Let’s eat, Grandma!”
One rule of English is that anything that precedes an independent clause is set off with a comma. “Before the match, we warmed up on the track.” If a person didn’t know that “we warmed up on the track” was an independent clause, they wouldn’t know that it is preceded by an adverbial phrase, “before the match” and they might struggle to know where, or even if, a comma should be placed. Without a comma, the following message is ambiguous: “Most of the time travellers worry about their luggage”.
Another rule is that information that is between two commas is parenthetical, and therefore not defining. A sentence like “The woman, who is waving, is my mother” communicates that there is only one woman. The fact that she is waving is inconsequential. That information is not necessary for identifying which woman is being spoken about because there is only one woman there. However, in the sentence “The woman who is waving is my mother”, there is more than one woman, but only one is waving. The information “who is waving” is defining in that it specifies which woman.
There are many more rules about how to use and not use commas, about how commas structure or frustrate meaning, but how is a writing mentor going to explain that to another writer who has not any understanding of grammatical structure, who does not know an independent clause from an appositive? The writer who wants to better understand how to make good punctuation choices or how to paraphrase better or be more concise would have to be willing to learn the grammar that structures sentences so that they could make those distinctions and manipulate forms. That is why it is best to continually pursue more and more grammar knowledge as you go. Consult reliable grammar sources like https://www.englishgrammar101.com/, https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl or https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/skillswise/sentence-structure/zjds7nb.