No wait-- don't turn the channel. I promise this won't be painful.
We all have grammar issues: the fear of the comma, love affairs with ellipsis, m-dash confusion. And let's not even start with the semi-colon. But the fact of the matter is that grammar does matter.
I've been reading a lot of manuscripts lately. I've read slush and I've read things under contract, and I've seen a lot of interesting grammatical things later. And when I say interesting, I'm being kind. It's sad, because when I open a new submission that I'm looking forward to, and the first 10 pages are riddled with errors, I know I'll have to pass. And it's not just because it would take me ten times longer to edit that manuscript.
Here's the thing--grammar is voice. Voice is grammar. Period.
Think about it. Grammar is the representation of speech. It's the system we use to notate what it is that we would sound like if we were saying the same thing. While it's true that there are a lot of people out there that don't speak "proper" English all the time, most of us do speak grammatically. If we didn't use sentences with subjects (the naming part) and predicates (the telling part), we wouldn't be conveying much. When a writer chooses to have a fragment, it needs to convey abruptness or disjointedness. If a writer chooses to have a character speak without correct grammar or tenses, it has to tell us something about that character.
I had a teacher once who explained grammar in a way that made sense. She said, it's not really important that you know the technical terms. What's important is to understand that grammar is, at its essence, a tool for communication. We writers like to play fast and loose sometimes with sentence structure--especially when it comes to sentence fragments and dialog. But there are some errors that you can't play fast and loose with, because they will confuse your reader. For example--you can't have a comma-splice or run-on sentence, because people don't speak in run-ons the way that we sometimes speak in fragments. You can't have a story with no (or very few commas), because most people need to breathe at some point between words. You can't have long runs of -ing phrases, because if you had to listen to someone talking like that, you'd slap them eventually.
Sure, there are grammar-ninjas out there who can diagram a sentence like nobody's business, but most of us are never going to bother memorizing the difference between the past perfect and simple past tense, or try to explain the difference between an appositive phrase and an infinitive phrase. What all writers--aspiring or otherwise--really need is to understand which mistakes they absolutely must learn to avoid. What we really need to know is how to avoid making the mistakes that will cause a reader (grammar-ninja or not) to get tripped up on our prose and lose the story.
Look, I understand. Grammar (for most people) is not fun. I teach it, and even I hate it most days. It's not the part of the story that makes your pulse race. It's not why you fall in love with your hero. But without it, none of the other stuff works.
And here's the thing--it can be learned. You can figure out where commas go (there are only a couple of places). You can remember that -ing verbs aren't really verbs. You can remember when to use an em-dash vs. a hyphen. It's totally possible. It just takes practice.
Here are a couple of my favorite resources for brushing up:
Strunk & White: Elements of Style- The best, most succinct explanation of commas ever (plus snark)
Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)--explanations and exercises
So what are your grammar gaffs? Your punctuation problems? And how are you trying to make them better?