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Jul 08

What "Good Grammar" Really Means (Hint: It's Maybe Not What You Think)

Communication Diagram

Classic communication diagram. See the parts labeled “Noise”? That’s anything that interferes with the efficient transmission of the message. Noise can be inserted by the sender, the receiver, or even the communication channel (i.e., crappy phone reception). Photo credit: pmexamsmartnotes.com via Flickr.

If you want to start a fight, there are a few go-to topics that will do the job. One of them is mamas. Another is politics. A third is grammar. I try never to talk politics—or mamas. But I will throw down about grammar. (Mostly, I’m talking about written grammar.) Grammar purists, AKA pedants, are the people who will argue that good grammar means never splitting an infinitive, never ending a sentence with a preposition, never beginning a sentence with “and” or “but.” On the flip side, there are those like English actor-comedian-writer-etc. Stephen Fry and my mentally agile friend Scott who insist that really, there are no rules.

I think they’re all sort of right. Also kind of wrong.

The purists, the pedants, the PICKY, place grammar on a pedestal as if it were some holy relic, handed down on stone tablets with instructions that we preserve it unchanged. They insist that we pass the rules down through generations, bending our snot-nosed offspring to them via tedious English lessons, no matter how awkward and painful those rules become. Sounds a bit like the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, doesn’t it?

Those who take this view are forgetting a few basic truths. One is this: language, and all its parts including spelling and grammar, evolves over time. It’s a living thing. Were it not, we would all be speaking—heck, I don’t even know, but it definitely would not be the English we know and (maybe) love. This is because of the second thing they’re forgetting: language serves the people, not the other way ’round. Its entire purpose is to communicate ideas and thoughts to others. Thus, at any point in time, good grammar is whatever will get the idea from the sender (speaker or writer) to the receiver (listener or reader) with the most part of the message intact. And as the world changes, so must our language. A great example is the use of “they” as a gender neutral singular pronoun. It makes purists twitch, and I understand why, but there is no fully satisfying alternative (“him or her?” UGH) in the English language, and so at least in casual writing, such usage has become widely accepted.

To determine whether a particular bit of writing has good grammar, you simply have to answer the question: does it communicate its message to the intended audience with the least reasonably possible amount of noise? What that means, of course, is that good grammar in a series of text messages between your tween daughter and her friends is not going to look the same as good grammar in email chain between two adult professionals—and that is perfectly fine. Desirable, in fact. It makes about as much sense for all communications to have the same formality, reading level, and structure as it would to wear formal (or informal) clothing on every occasion.

BUT.

Like any good thing, that approach can be taken too far. The core rules of English exist for a reason, and when they are broken, noise can enter the communication chain. Throw enough noise in there, and the receiver will give up in frustration—or use the noise as an excuse to ignore the message. If it is important to you as the sender to get your message across as intended, it is completely, totally, absolutely worth your time to grasp the common rules and use that knowledge in your writing. Pro tip: Master those rules, and you will be able to break them in such a way that they serve your purpose, maybe even communicating your message more effectively than by-the-book writing. But you can’t make the language do your evil bidding like that unless you understand how it works, in the same way that you are unlikely to discover a great shortcut to a place unless you know the main roads.

Of course, it depends on the medium. If someone posts a message on Facebook using “there” when “their” was meant, I notice, yes, but I don’t say anything about it, and I try to ignore it if I can. (Note: People who regularly correct other people’s grammar on the Internet, especially as a way of refuting an argument, are being jerky. Don’t be that person. If you are already that person, stop. Just stop.) But even on Facebook, if someone consistently uses poor grammar, spelling, etc., I may (to myself, quietly) question their attention to detail, if not their critical thinking ability, especially if it’s someone I rarely if ever see in person.

That’s key, too. If only a small portion of your communication with a group is of the written variety, most likely that is not the main criteria they use to judge you. I know more than a few people who express themselves less well in writing than in person—I am the opposite—but since I know them in person, I’m able to understand that their less-than-stellar writing skills are not an indicator of their overall intelligence level.

The flip side of that is that if your writing is the main way you communicate with people, if that’s all they have to judge you by—if you are a writer, in other words, or write things you want others to read and take seriously—then flout the rules (or not-rules) if you wish, but be prepared to accept the natural consequences of your actions, which are: one, readers could legitimately have difficulty understanding your message; two, your credibility may come into question even by those who understand what you are trying to say; and three, eventually, you will alienate the very audience you’re trying to attract.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on it in the comments.


Photo credit: Thumbnail image (Grammar Nazi) by Brett Jordan via Flickr.

4 comments

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  1. Drew

    That was a well written blog. I sometimes wish they had refresher courses for adults on grammar at local schools. Lord knows I could use a brush up course including punctuation. I believe that language only works if it’s vague. If I had to spell out exactly what I mean when I say yellow It would take all day and possibly eternity. Sending a message is really only effective if people generally understand most of the parts of the communication. Too detailed and it takes too long to send and if too brief the message becomes unclear.

    So K Thx. D

    1. Evelyn Stice

      Ha! Interesting point, and good example. You and your audience have to have a common understanding, or the message just doesn’t work.

  2. Libby

    Is it okay that I cringe every time I see the phrase “your welcome” in an email after I have thanked someone? (I have NEVER corrected the offender.)

    1. Evelyn Stice

      That is ENTIRELY okay. I cringe internally all the time. Some things really are wrong.

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