Although I did well at it, I never much enjoyed grade school or high school – it took the freedom of university to teach me to really enjoyed learning. And believe it or not, I thought, the worst, most boring, most mind-numbing class ever was grammar.
I'm old enough to have been forced to diagram sentences (bet if you’re under 30 you don't even know what that means!) and I found it tedious and confusing. The only thing that stuck with me was the definition of a verb as "the action word of the sentence." It wasn't until becoming a professional writer that I actually cared.
But if you're going to care anything in your writing, care about your verbs. They are the engines of your sentences. Pick the right verb and it will give your reader the power to zoom along. I’ve always urged my clients to keep a list of the strong verbs they discover in their reading -- and I repeat that advice to you now. Watch carefully for offbeat or unusual verbs, then record them in a notebook or electronic file. Here's a favourite from my notebook: "The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park." A park swallowing a crowd -- isn't that a terrific image?
You should also work up a sweat to avoid boring "state of being" verbs (like: is, am, were, was, are, be, being, been) and instead zero in on verbs with some zip or pizzazz: dither, inspect, disdain. It helps to be precise. After all, to saunter is not the same as to walk or to stride. Be specific and you'll create a sharper picture in your reader's mind's eye.
Further, attend to your tenses. If the verb is an automobile, the simple present tense (I eat, you ingest, he chews) is a Corvette. Sleek and with a powerful engine, it goes from zero to 60 in five. Prefer it over the less streamlined present progressive (I am eating). While this form shows ongoing activity, it can too easily gum up your sentence. Most times you don't need it. Edit down to the simple.
Here's another tip, beloved of journalists and magazine writers: Take that story or anecdote that seems to belong in the past tense (because it's something that happened) and simply decree that it is in the present. For example: "George Finch smiled when he heard the news" becomes "George Finch smiles when he hears the news. " See how that transforms the sentence? Just remember to be consistent. Don't shift from one tense to another if the time frame of the story remains the same.
Be especially wary of a tense known as the future unreal conditional. (Even the name sounds alarming!) The dead giveaway of this tense is the word "would." Here's an example: "The vice president would sit at the boardroom table chastising his employees." The trouble is, "would" signals this to be an apocryphal or imaginary story. Ditch it. Tell real stories instead.
Ok time's up. I hope that wasn't as dull as the grammar classes I had to endure as a child. No scary terms, no funny lines to draw. Just a focus on action, action, action. Class dismissed.
Bonus laugh for anyone over 40: Here is humourist Dave Barry's explanation of how to diagram a sentence: First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the "predicate," which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: "LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger," the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad there’s someone out there who can still laugh about grammar!