A lot of us learned the “conventional” way: via English teacher, sentence diagrams, vocabulary exercises, and spelling tests.

There isn’t much that’s conventional about me, though, and although I endured the usual classes for a few years in elementary, I largely leapfrogged the classic English lessons via gifted and AP English. This meant that for years I couldn’t point out a past participle or label subjunctive clauses in sentences. To the New York State Department of Education, that didn’t matter.

So what did matter?

Clarity of expression. As our lexicon grows, so should syntax and semantics.

Individuality of expression. Parroting what we’ve heard is only charming until around the age of three.

Comprehension of the expressions of others. That’s the only way the people around us know the lights in the attic aren’t automatic.

Michelle was tweeting during our #WrMatters chat on Thursday, during which we discussed the things we had to learn the hard way when it came to writing the things we write–schooling or no schooling. When I read her tweet, I thought, You and me both, Michelle.

Would formal training have made me timid as I learned the parts of speech and where to place each one, ever so carefully?

Has it forced you to second-guess a statement that sounded fine when you said it but reads like nails on a chalkboard to… well, your English teacher?

Why, after years of training, are so many of us still unsure we’re writing correctly?

And yet, Michelle Baker mentioned that learning English–and I think this applies to anything–can create a

“Vicious cycle: lessons can’t be unlearned until you’re competent; you gain competence by adhering.”

These days, when email is now a formal medium for important business communication and we’re being urged to use childish-sounding platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate professionally, I don’t think it’s any accident that at the same time, so many rules we thought were set in stone are being “unlearned.” But is it safe to “unlearn” when we have yet to learn about things like parallelism and mixed metaphors?

Although it seems we were all taught from the same books–just counting the number of times I’ve heard “Never to start a sentence with because”–we all express ourselves differently. Twain and Hemingway are a contrast that only begins to show how much room English has for our verbal idiosyncrasies–and how much tolerance readers have for them. And even I, with no formal training, can usually tell creativity from gobbledy-gook. Usually, I said.

But in the end, the only “right” way to learn to write well is to keep at it, while using common sense–and remembering these gems from the chat:



All this soft-focus rhetoric was generated by the much sharper #WrMatters Twitter chat for professionals of all disciplines who just happen to write things that matter. I hope to see you at the next one, on August 9 at 4 pm EST.

Photo credit: Shirley Theresia, courtesy Flickr, CC 2.0.

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