Intuitive Grammar

That phrase came into my head the other day, all on its own, I swear: intuitive grammar.

Okay, I likely have heard it somewhere before, but it popped into my head as if I’d made it up. A quick search tells me that I didn’t invent the concept, of course. But it is something that I think highlights the beauty and the frustration of the English language: if you’re a native speaker with a well-tuned brain, you likely have an intuitive sense of its patterns and nuances. If you’re not a native speaker, or you haven’t developed this “intuition,” figuring out the rules and the many, many exceptions to those rules can be endlessly discouraging.

The thing is, intuitive grammar isn’t enough! That is to say, it’s not all you need to be a good writer or a good editor, and I’ve experienced that firsthand. Especially when it comes to editing – you need a larger toolbox in order to practice this craft effectively.

Growing up, I found grammar fairly easy to master. Writing came naturally, and I consistently did well on assignments and classes in which “proper grammar” was emphasized. Senior year of high school, I took a block of classes that earned a few college credits and required intensive writing as well as a peer editing workshop every week. One of the best academic/professional compliments I’ve ever received was from my senior English teacher, who wrote in my college recommendation letters that I was the top editor in the class. I’ll never forget that!

Once I got to college, I channeled that editing prowess into a job as a tutor in the university writing center, and I found that editing wasn’t as easy as it used to be. In high school, I could circle errors and suggest wording changes and my classmates would pretty much unquestioningly take my advice. Tutoring sessions with my peers in college were more like conversations, requiring me to discuss and explore and explain the suggestions I was making.

It’s difficult! I could explain that “Featuring strong characterization and symbolism, I admire Fitzgerald more than any other American writer” wasn’t such a great sentence, but not exactly why. (Hint: dangling modifier.) My intuition helped me wield my red pen, but not really help others become better writers. So I had to develop a more formalized understanding of grammar, on my own and with my peers and teachers, in order to be an effective editor.

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