Genetics-Based Grammarianism by Michelle Arch

In a world of tweeting, texting, chattering, status updates, desktop messaging, flash fiction, and the ubiquitous shrunken novel, rhetoric and the art of epic articulation, sadly, are no longer appreciated and extolled. Murky millennial jargon and cryptic acronyms have replaced the precision of entire phrases and sentences, leaving some of us to wonder if the writer is laughing out loud or sending us lots of love. We are called upon constantly to synopsize, abstract, and shorten our communication and creative expression to meet the limitations of tiny keyboards, available characters, and an attention-deficit audience, even in arenas once characterized by devotion to the written word.

Contributing to the fragmentation of written communication is a seemingly widespread disinterest in and disdain for linguistic constructions in favor of imaginative, less encumbered expression in which punctuation and capitalization are optional. As an aspiring grammarian and the daughter of an English professor and department chair, rules of syntax and grammar have always seemed rudimentary and aptly rigid to me. While I never struggled to grasp the apparent mysteries of the semicolon or the intricacies imposed by the apostrophe, I buy and pore over the rule books nonetheless, honing my skill and fueling my passion for writing that is, first and foremost, right. My writer friend Ian Prichard suffers from the same chromosomal affliction, which he has coined “genetics-based grammarianism.”

Those of us with GBG deem adherence to and mastery of grammatical imperatives to be the undisputed core determinants of good writing and satisfactory performance within, say, the context of a composition course and are puzzled and disturbed by the present disinclination to overwhelm a novice writing student with them. Science, mathematics, business, and other curriculums of absolutes have their determinants, as well, and allegiance to them is unwavering. Failing grades in these programs of study not only reflect inadequate functioning but serve to weed out, while composition teachers are pressured to pass all students, regardless of whether or not grammatical and syntactical proficiency is achieved. Whether this pressure is in response to the questioning of the value of formal rules, societal indifference to standards of excellence in writing, the contemporary watering down of the craft to make it more accessible, or a decline in college and university enrollment, the written product is compromised for the sake of the enterprise.

Because my college and university experience spans thirty years, I have perceived this shift in response to student writing personally. While writing assessment was once a decisive and matter-of-fact highlighting of grammatical errors and structural deficiencies, composition and creative writing teachers (and graduate students studying the teaching of composition) of late seem averse to allocating much time and energy to punctuation, agreement, and other mechanical constrictions, focusing instead on the strength and development of the argument or narrative plot primarily. Even graduate students in current English and creative writing programs criticize professors for marking grammatical errors, deeming the feedback – wait for it – immaterial.

Creative writing workshops, specifically, are hostile environments for participants who call attention to grammatical errors in a peer’s work. It has even been suggested that it is the editor’s job to catch “those problems,” as the writer should not be stifled by such trivial controls. It is a curiosity to me how students who truly fly in the face of language rules are interested in (and accepted into) English and writing programs in the first place.

Communicating well in writing is the ability to inspire, evoke, engage, and transform through words and syntax and rhythm. It requires the meticulous, unremitting selection of the precise word – and there almost always is that one perfect word – that conveys the author’s meaning, as well as intuitive choices about spacing and pauses and dialogue. It requires an investment of time and comprehension on both the reader’s and writer’s part and a commitment to legitimate communication. And it requires a respect for and love of punctuation and principles of usage that some of us, thankfully, were fortunate to inherit.


Michelle Arch, Guest Blogger for TreeHouse
Michelle Arch, Guest Blogger for TreeHouse

Michelle Arch is a guest blogger for TreeHouse and currently completing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chapman University. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Chapman University, a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre and English from California State University, Fullerton. Arch is a member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, American Christian Fiction Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Modern Language Association, and the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society.

Her current projects include a portfolio of short stories, poems, and critical essays, many of which explore themes of identity and self-definition and the study of mimetic imagery, and a novel. Arch has presented her work at the 2010 and 2011 Sigma Tau Delta International Conventions in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the Sigma Tau Delta 2011 Regional Conference in Orange, California, the 2012 John Fowles Literary Forum, and the 2012 Big Orange Book Festival. Her work has also been published on the ACFW website and in the Orange County Register’s Ladera Post.

An excerpt from her novel, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference in Newport Beach. To visit her website and blog, Archetype, go to


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  1. Dear Michelle

    I simply cannot imagine a life without the semi-colon!

    In my twenties, when I taught university entrance level English in colleges here in Scotland, my written commentaries, correcting new students’ grammatical and structural errors, were routinely longer than most students’ essays. However, this initial attention to form always paid off at the end of the year, not just in terms of my students’ grades, but also in terms of their realising the degree to which their content had acquired much greater “punch” by careful attention to form.

    Thank you for this post. Well said!

  2. Thank you, Anne! I’m sure your students appreciate all the time you invested in their writing, even if only in retrospect. Those lessons are indelible and invaluable.

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