Why Good Grammar is (Sometimes) Important

A discussion of why it is sometimes important to adhere to the rules of good grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

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When I first mooted the idea of an essay concerning the reasons why authors should strive for good grammar, I was a little taken aback when the managing editor (who generally writes extremely good English) responded: “Oh, that’s good, because I’m just doing a piece on why they don’t need to – we could go head to head”. Interesting!
She finished first, and when I read her article I soon realised that there was nothing in it with which I disagreed. At all.

There are many reasons why you might not write in ‘correct’, standard English. It may be that you cannot, and it would be invidious to suggest that anyone should be denied a voice because, for whatever reason, they have not grasped the considerable collection of rules of standard English.

Aside from that, there are any number of creative reasons why you might choose to use a different ‘voice’. There are, however, two very good reasons why, if you are writing in ‘standard’ English, you might wish to avoid grammatical errors.

Firstly, from simple self interest. Nobody is going to object to good grammar. It’s true that there are occasions when people will object to high-falutin language, but that is usually because the author (or speaker) is using a lot of words they don’t understand. If a speaker is doing that deliberately, it is reprehensible. Generally, though, good grammar makes prose easier to read for everyone. That is, after all, why we have rules for such things as spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

On the other hand, when reading a piece in what is supposed to be standard English, errors in grammar can be somewhat jarring and detract from the smooth flow that the author should be trying to achieve. It’s nothing (or, at least, it doesn’t have to be) anything to do with snobbery; if someone reads a piece of your work and is continually distracted by grammatical faults, their feeling for your writing (as opposed to a critical assessment of it) will be less positive. Of course, if everything else is top hole, they probably won’t care, but do we not, as authors, want to give our readers the best possible experience from reading our words?

The second reason is that authors – and that means everyone who writes down words for others to read, whether traditional authors, bloggers, or people commenting on internet fora, social media, or other websites – are, or are channels for, the guardians, directors, and inventors of our language.

The written word has, generally, a lot more influence on a language, overall, than the spoken one. Before the rise of the Web, when people who wrote usually had a particular interest in writing, language evolved slowly. If a new word was useful, quirky, or amusing, and achieved wide usage, it would gradually appear in print, and sooner or later it would be included in dictionaries, and become a normal, accepted, part of the lexicon.

Now, however, there are myriad opportunities for anyone at all to commit their words to print – physical or electronic. In many ways this is a good thing, even a very good thing, but one of the unfortunate corollaries is that the errors and neologisms that crop up can now be propagated at lightning speed. In some cases these things are welcome evolutions that make our languages brighter and more vibrant, but in others – for example where a word is misused in such a way that it loses its distinction with another (enquiry/inquiry, insure/ensure, infer/imply) it is quite clearly detracting from the ability of the language to deliver thoughts in a concise and precise manner.
So, if your grammar is not the best, never let it put you off expressing yourself.

And if you want to use vernaculars, creoles, and dialects to enliven your work, go right ahead.

But if you have good language skills, and are writing in the standard form, pay attention to the various rules, and only contravene them if you want to, or need to, for some particular purpose.

Your prose will flow better – and hence be better appreciated – and you will be doing your part to ensure that our languages grow and evolve rather than bloat and degenerate.

He is a computer scientist, born in London but spent most of his life living in Kent.

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