Does Grammar Matter

Inject life into your prose by abandoning standard English.

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There’s no reason why you should compose creatively in standard English. Language is culture. If you only write in the tongue of the establishment you are cutting yourself off from dozens of different cultures, all with stories to tell – indeed, stories that often aren’t told. If you’re unsure of the rules of grammar, who cares? Write as you speak. We’ll get it. 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 split infinitive without collapsing. If you’re accustomed to being understood when you open your mouth, why assume any different when you open a laptop?

This is a class issue. “Standard English” is defined by socioeconomics, rather than geography. I’m from Essex, but I’ve worked hard all my life to disguise the fact, because early on I realised I’d get nowhere using a vernacular defined as incorrect, rather than different, by the people in power. Now I’m older and bolshier I often choose to write in the vernacular of my childhood, rather than the standard grammatical correct English they teach in schools. It brings energy, truth, variety to creative work. Some very fine authors have understood and utilised the power of dialect – James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle, doubtless some other people I haven’t read who aren’t Celts, but the Scots and Irish do seem particularly proud of their glorious vernacular, and bally good luck to them. If your natural instinct is to say “You was” rather than “you were”, write it as well as say it, and watch your prose spring to life. Don’t be ashamed of it: turn it to your advantage.

It’s extraordinary how brazen and cheerful people are in their admissions that they’re “hopeless at maths”, or drawing, hockey, geography; or indeed, how ignorant they are about films, politics, sport – yet they remain privately, deeply, desperately ashamed of their inability to write standard English.

Why is that, do you think? Personally, I suspect it’s because grammar pedants have the loudest voices. It’s snobbery, and it makes my blood itch. 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 pretty 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.

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. Seize the means of production right back from the pedants’ smug, flabby fingers, and get writing.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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