What Good is Good Grammar Anyway?

grammar good

This post came about thanks to an article that Maggi Kirkbride found, read, and shared — and tagged me with. You can read it here. Thanks, Maggi!

The article is concerned about correcting another’s grammar, which doesn’t seem to allow the writer’s style to show through. I just don’t see it as an either/or proposition. I think we can use correct grammar, at least most of the time, and still allow an individual’s style to shine through.

To me, grammar is a bridge between a writer’s ideas and a reader’s understanding of those ideas. It’s a tool that allows for clarity. It has developed over hundreds (thousands?) of years across the world, with the goal of making writing clear to readers. Without some structure, some common agreements, and some consistencies in spelling, usage, and/or punctuation, some writing, like this sentence, would be really tough to read — see below.

Withoutsomestructuresomecommonagreementsandsomeconsistenciesinspellingusageandorpunctuationsomewritinglikethissentencewouldbereallytoughtoreadseebelow

I don’t see myself as a pedant at all! I do see myself as a guardian of clarity. I am willing to ignore or overlook a punctuation rule if there would be no confusion or embarrassment as a result of something a client has written. As the article suggests, there is always style to consider. We all have a distinctive voice as writers, and I don’t mess with that. I just make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed . . .

Does language evolve? Of course it does! If it didn’t, we’d all be talking and writing the way our ancestors did — or maybe the way Romeo and Juliet did (for English-speaking folks). But there are a few words — irregardless comes to mind — that shouldn’t show up in professional writing. Not yet, anyway.

 

And certain words simply are NOT interchangeable. Its is ALWAYS the possessive pronoun; it’s is ALWAYS either it is or it has.Your is ALWAYS the possessive pronoun;you’re is ALWAYS you are.

 

Even punctuation rules change over time. Now we’re all told to put only one space between sentences and after a colon that sets up a list within a sentence. (It took me more than a year to get my mind to agree, and even longer for my fingers to do it the new way consistently.)

Of course, sometimes a punctuation mark — like a comma — really matters. When the meaning can change due to a comma (or the lack of one), we writers need to be on our toes! We can’t blame our readers for our mistakes.

Do I ever end sentences with a preposition? Of course! Some sentences just sound better (right) that way. “With whom are you going?” sounds weird, right? Well, grammatically, it’s correct but that doesn’t really help. “Who are you going with?” is what we would all say, breaking an old rule that was actually never a rule in the first place.

Do I ever split an infinitive? Yes, sometimes I do, again if the sentence would sound better. The most famous usage of a split infinitive came from the original Star Trek series. Was it done deliberately? I don’t know, but I do know the sentence is MUCH better for having that split infinitive. And see the surprising origin of the phrase here.

So while using good grammar is more than a suggestion, there are certainly a few times when we can relax a bit. As long as we’re not going to confuse readers, or embarrass ourselves (or our boss, or our company), and we have a really good reason to change up a rule . . . I think it’s OK.

BUT.

It helps a lot to know what the rules are before we do that. Many that still exist have a purpose to them: clarity. And that’s why I will continue to help others (re)learn the basic punctuation and usage rules of American grammar.