Why bother with grammar?

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“Why can’t we let people write the way they want to?” someone challenged me in a training session last week. Like many others, he had never been taught grammar at school and didn’t see why he should start now. And he cited his heroes – Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs – as examples of writers who broke the rules to terrific effect.

He had a point. Are the old rules still relevant in the age of texting, tweeting and instant messaging? Some people think those platforms encourage dumbing down, but aren’t they also full of genuine creativity? So why can’t we be a bit less rigid about grammar and spelling in other written communications as well?

Then I went back to those beat writers, and guess what? Their spelling is conventional. Their grammar is impeccable, unless they choose otherwise. And their punctuation is perfect. Which may explain why my challenger, despite his self-confessed ignorance, understood instinctively how to use commas.

You need to know and understand the rules before you can start breaking them.

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4 Responses to Why bother with grammar?

  1. Clare Lynch October 17, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    Why bother with grammar and punctuation? Consider the difference between the following:

    “Let’s eat, grandma!”

    “Let’s eat grandma!”

    • Will October 26, 2011 at 9:07 am #

      I know a similar one about capitalisation:

      “I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse.” is infinitely less icky than “I helped my uncle jack off a horse.”

  2. Will October 17, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    I agree that it’s only really, really brilliant writers like James Joyce who can get away with breaking the rules because they know them so well. And, frankly, most of us aren’t Joyce, Thompson, Kerouac etc. When they do it, it’s cool, stylish and clever. When less talented writers do it, it’s awkward, jarring and foolish.

  3. Om Dennis December 28, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    I agree entirely. But why indeed learn grammar? Your short essay ended with a mere restatement: we must learn grammar. Why?

    I’m interested in your take on this because it segues into motivating students to improve their grammatical accuracy. 😉

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