There is an old saying, a piece of advice. If you want to be a writer, you should be a reader first. Read fiction. Read articles. Read much more. Read any good prose. But as you read and practise your writing, you need to develop an eye for language. You can hire a grammar expert to sit down with you and teach you the finer points but you may not learn much. For one thing, English grammar is difficult to teach. For another, there are nuances, variations and permutations that are better observed than learnt in a classroom.

So what does it mean to develop an eye for language? It means you take note of the subtle differences in the way words come together to form statements which harmonise to form paragraphs which link together to form an essay or story. For example, while reading you will observe that the first person pronoun “I” is always capitalised. You do not have to read in a book why it is so or even know what a “pronoun” is to make this observation. Without knowing what a “present participle” is, you can know, from observation, how people correctly use “been” and “being”. (See the article Being and been.)  And even without knowing what “subjunctive” is, you will observe that people write “were” rather than “is” or “was” when implying a negative or an impossible condition—“If I were you….”

If you come across a statement and you stop to re-read, curious about the usage of a word or phrase in it, you have an eye for language. If usage flies over your head whenever you read, you need to start working on developing an eye for language. If you come across a statement rendered in a manner you find outré and you begin to wonder why it is so, you will learn a lot in the process of finding out the grammar rules that are operational in it. If you have an eye for language, you will come to appreciate the fact that in everyday speech and writing concord does not follow the strict grammatical variety you were taught in elementary school but often bends to accommodate the notional variety. Later, you may even come to appreciate the different variants of English and come to realise that clime is sometimes a factor. You will observe, for example, that BrE leans far more towards notional concord than the American variant of English which tends more towards grammatical concord.

However, reading prose and observing how words are used is not sufficient to master the language and the craft of writing. You must not assume that context is sufficient for you to appreciate the meaning and correct use of words. Learning is won by study. Whenever you come across a new word, you should look it up in a good dictionary. It is common to hear people misuse a word because they heard it used that way and did not bother to verify its correct use for themselves. For example, many people wrongly use the word “severally” when they actually mean “several times” or “often” or “many times”. By “good dictionary”, I mean one that explains things in detail and uses examples. Thankfully, those pocket dictionaries that tended to dumb down things are giving way in the era of electronic dictionaries.

Furthermore, you should read materials that teach the fine intricacies of grammar and writing. There are various websites with articles on punctuation. This blog is one of them. You will find these helpful in understanding the rules and finer points of grammar. There are usually examples given to illustrate what is taught. If you did not read Brighter Grammar, by Phebean Ogundipe et al, you should consider doing so. It is a collection of small books, 1–4, that aims to take the tedium out of grammar learning for children. It is the best foundational material for grammar that I have seen yet.

Next, I recommend the famous Strunk and Whyte. It is a small book called The Elements of Style. You can purchase digital copies online. I consider it a useful material, even while disagreeing with the authors on some points of style. Another material you should consider reading is Stephen King’s On Writing. While most other materials that teach writing are written by “experts” on writing, On Writing is unique in being written by a best-selling author. King describes the 279-page as his “attempt to put down, briefly and simply,” his views about “the language… the art and craft of telling stories on paper.”

As you read, and possibly reread, these materials, you will absorb the rules of grammar and writing tips that may someday enable you to craft sentences just like your favourite writer.