The Isle of Thanet News columnists Matthew Munson and Melissa Todd are diametrically opposed on a few interesting issues (that’s one thing they agree on).
One of those issues is grammar. Is it important?
A dear friend of mine spent five years telling me he “couldn’t find his glasses” when I asked him to read something. The truth is, he can’t read or write, not one word. And he’s bitterly ashamed of the fact.
(You shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’. That’s the first of half a dozen grammatical errors I plan to make in this piece. See if you can spot the rest).
It’s extraordinary how brazen and cheerful people are in their admissions that they’re “hopeless at maths”, or drawing, hockey, or geography; or indeed, how ignorant they are about films, politics, sport – yet they remain reticent and deeply, desperately ashamed of their inability to grasp the basic rules of grammar.
Why is that, do you think? Personally, I suspect it’s because grammar snobs have the loudest voices. They have seized the means of production and turned them against the rest of us. And let me tell you a secret, you who despair at your ignorance, who wince at their all-seeing, all-knowing mockery.
What they know isn’t even that impressive.
In truth, the rules of grammar are extremely simple. I remember quite clearly my English teacher explaining apostrophes when I was fifteen and struggling. It took three minutes, and I’m no genius. Knowing that “Banana’s: 50p a kilo” isn’t correct is a lot less impressive than understanding percentages, or knowing the time in Paraguay, and moreover, it’s a lot less useful. Because if you’re shopping for bananas, you understand exactly what that sign means. Whereas if you’re filing your tax return, or planning a backpacking tour, you have to actually understand that stuff, or you’re stuffed. My illiterate friend has more practical knowledge and ability than I could acquire in twelve lifetimes, yet all his life he’s been made to feel a fool, often by smug little snobs who can’t do anything themselves except make others feel foolish.
Humans aren’t robots: they understand context. If I tell you I was woken last night by a bark, you’ll imagine a dog, not a tree. The English language is a wonderful, flexible, ever-evolving beast: it can withstand the odd misplaced apostrophe without collapsing.
People who obsess over grammar are generally terrible writers. True creatives understand that you need to bend and shape language to your will, allow it to reflect your message, medium, audience, mood, rather than demonstrate your technical ability. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, James Joyce, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, many others, all knew that, and gave us turns of phrase and structure we laud and revere today, which in their own time and milieu were often considered dismally wrong.
This matters. If you make people too scared to express themselves, if you take from them their language, the way they process their thoughts and feelings, and if they then believe the English language is too complex and arcane for them, they will find some other way to express their rage and fear, like smashing up a shop, or drugging themselves into numbness, or attacking someone to make themselves feel better.
That’s horrible and wrong, wrong, wrong. And I want to say to those people: language is for you; creativity, self-expression, is yours, yours for the taking, and it matters not one jot if you don’t know where those silly little dots and dashes belong in words or sentences.
And you’d be banana’s to believe otherwise.
The Grammar Police. Grammar Nazis. Pedants.
People who argue that decent grammar is important are sometimes called one or all of the above. I certainly have been, and I’ve people who roll their eyes if I so much as glance towards a rogue apostrophe or a word whose spelling is rather badly mangled.
But grammar is important, and it’s varied; what our language looks like today will be different tomorrow, and that’s okay – it’s as it should be; society evolves, and we need a language that evolves with us. Anyone who tries to freeze language in time needs their head examining; that’s the beauty of being able to speak – we can work out what works and agree on a set of rules.
Because rules in language are important; even those who get annoyed or irritated by them rely on them. They couldn’t argue their point without a well-crafted sentence, and for that they will need grammar to be able to be understood.
But there are a number of reasons as to why grammar is important, aside from what I’ve already mentioned. As I go through each of these, please do bear in mind that each of these rules would be equally fine if our language changed and evolved beyond our current understanding tomorrow; that’s the important thing about language – it will always need rules in which to survive, because it will otherwise be just a random jumble and collection of letters, words, and sentences. As soon as we composing our thoughts into something intelligible, we’re using grammar.
So let’s talk through some reasons why grammar is important (and ever evolving);
- Mistakes interfere with clarity. Anyone who uses social media will instantly be able to think of a dozen examples where a person’s Facebook status or latest Tweet is so butchered and grammatically incorrect that you couldn’t translate it if you tried. Sometimes, you’re able to vaguely understand what they’re trying to get across after having spent twenty minutes deciphering the intended message behind the morass of mixed-up madness and confusion.
- You open yourself up to further criticism and weaken your point of view. People will so often switch off if your point of view is badly considered, written, and thought out. Only by having the ability to communicate clearly will your point of view have any chance of being respected and listened to. Whether or not your opinion is worthy of being listened to is another matter entirely, but if you can argue your thoughts clearly and openly, then you have far more opportunity to be listened to – and perhaps even win people over.
- William Zinsser once wrote; “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.” How apt.
- Using correct grammar helps avoid Think of a phrase like “Let’s eat, Grandma.” Forget that comma, and you are saying “Let’s eat Grandma.” Although this example is so ridiculous that you probably wouldn’t make a mistake in understanding, it does show how the lack of correct grammar can change the meaning completely.
- If you make mistakes in a letteror in your CV, it suggests that you don’t consider the reader important enough to take the time to get it right. In fact, mistakes in your CV might cost you a job; if you can’t get the grammar right, then how well will you represent the company?
- A lot of tiny errors will accumulate and make you appear nothing but careless, sloppy, uninterested, and slovenly.
- Making smaller amounts of big errors (using principle where you mean principal, for example) will make some of your readers or listeners believe that you don’t know what you’re talking about. People won’t take you anywhere near as seriously if you don’t communicate well.
- English is one of the world’s foremost languages; so many people use it as their second or third language, and we’ve become used as a nation to encountering people when we travel who know enough to hold at least a basic conversation (and most of the time it’s beyond that). If the grammar isn’t correct when we’re trying to communicate, a native speaker might be able to understand what’s being said (after a little thought); a foreigner is more likely to have more trouble.
- People sometimes think good grammar is boring, elitist, snobbish, or something for “clever people”. All of that is entirely tosh, of course; grammar and language is for everyone, and if we’re not teaching people how to enjoy and use language well, then we’re failing everyone.
- Good grammar is a thing of beauty. There are so many ways to describe objects, situations, thoughts, people, places … and so on. You can be verbose or succinct, witty or serious, mellifluous or harsh – using the variety of the language to your advantage makes conversation more interesting, and you more interesting as a result.
As David Almond once said; “Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.” We should be proud of our language and its ever-changing rules, because our pride means that we care about the messages we’re sharing with others as well as receiving; language is beautiful, and we should celebrate that.