Misery and Me: Grammar, Copywriting, and Laundry Soap

In an advanced technical writing class as an undergraduate, I remember the professor saying, “This should sound wrong to you all.” She meant simply that we should be able to identify grammatical and mechanical errors by sound (or more accurately, sight) by the time we landed in that class.

It occurs to me now, after so many years and blog posts and white papers and fiction pieces, that I’ve never actually had a formal course focused on grammar. A technical writing course that showed how to put those words into reports and documentation, and creative writing workshops that focused on how those words were used, yes, but never a formal study in grammar.

At this time of night, it’s probably best to lay off the coffee and go watch tv, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether writing is something that can and/or must be taught/learned (that question alone a longstanding debate that requires at least the length of a seminar paper).

Perhaps we absorb writing style and proper grammar more from what we read than what we practice in the typical classroom context that’s often hard to translate to any real-world rhetorical situation. And I mean what we read as in what we’ve always read, long before entering college, the profession, or the writer’s basement studio.

I remember reading books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye as a kid, not because they were assigned, but because the stories were good. Soon after writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz took the place of those fluffy animals and rye fields (which could explain a lot about my fiction writing, it seems).

Reading books served as writing instruction. We absorb the language we’re exposed to, it seems, which is what establishes the foundation for our awareness, understanding, and command of grammar.

Our university courses and professional writing excursions serve, then, as an opportunity to exercise those skills can be developed naturally through a love of works like, in my case, Misery and The Door to December. From there my time as an undergrad studying English resulted in a love of literary works most of my friends have never heard of, and my graduate writing workshops taught that, as creative writers, we have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them.

Long before my consumption of anything book-length, I practiced the strange habit as a child of reading each line of copy on packaged products. Any products. Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, motor oil, bags of dogfood, soup cans, laundry soap.

I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, other than to say that writing is no longer the dominion of the English or communications major. The business world is now an extension of our private worlds. Brands and consumers alike “publish” their writing online everyday through social media, blog posts, and reviews.

Ultimately, the source of mechanics and style that we draw upon in our writing, whether consciously or otherwise, is everything that we’ve read up to the point where we sit down at the keyboard, be it Ars Poetica, the labels on personal hygiene products, or the stuff of nightmares.


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  1. #1 by Carly on December 20, 2010 - 10:48 pm

    I read all of the copy on packaged products as a kid, too! And, being from Canada, I read it in both French and English. I’ve never formally learned French, and have no idea how to pronounce almost anything in French, but my reading comprehension is pretty decent, since I would compare the French and English copy.

    I agree with your post and lament the fact that, as you say, our grammar is derived from everything we read, since so much of what is available to be read contains bad grammar.

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