Who Cares About Grammar?

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“Who cares about grammar?” was a question that my sixteen-year-old self would have asked rhetorically, assuming the answer was obviously “nobody of any importance.”

Those who cared about grammar were overly obsessed with rules and details for their own sake. As long as one got his or her ideas across clearly, what did it matter if they stuck to random, formal conventions?

This is not to say that I disliked writing – in fact, I’ve always loved writing, and was fortunate enough to have an intuitive understanding of how language should look and sound to get by without understanding formal rules and mechanics. I remember getting “A”s in high school for essays and short stories, but failing a test on gerunds (who cares what those are, right?).

I did not know much about grammar until I started teaching, and then mostly out of a panicked sense that teachers simply should know these things. I must say that learning the rules has helped in that doing so provided terms and definitions to apply to those concepts I had only grasped intuitively before.

This in turn has given me greater control over my own writing and my ability to help others with theirs. However, knowing the rules has also reinforced my belief that they are often arbitrary or open to debate: they evolve over time, or vary depending on the context or the purpose of one’s message.

Should you use the Oxford comma? Do you put one or two spaces after a period? Is text-speak – “u” instead of “you” – ever acceptable? Sometimes, rules that we have come to accept as gospel – do you still avoid starting your sentences with “and” or ending them with prepositions? – are mere myths.

Yet, many situations do nonetheless exist – as in formal business or academic writing – in which the strictest adherence to rules counts towards one’s professional image. Getting a detail wrong might mean a rejected proposal, loss of money, and missed opportunities. Working with rules that may not only vary depending on the situation, but also create barriers if one gets them wrong, can often provoke considerable anxiety.

Of course, a good editor will help walk you through this difficult terrain, and should address not only the formal rules but also the specific context of your writing. To further illustrate my point, I plan to use this blog to highlight some situations in which people care very much about grammar – where the rules are not only open for debate but can also arouse heated passions.

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