“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

Why Grammar Matters

If there’s one significant thing that Joe and I have historically disagreed on, it’s the role of grammar in a writer’s toolbox. We complement each other well because as much as I love grammar and sentence structure, he equally embraces the dismissal of commas and the implementation of run-on sentences for art’s sake. When you get down to brass tacks though, I have to admit that he kind of has a point: grammar is somewhat arbitrary.

grammar

Do not read that last sentence as permission to stop using periods. What I mean is that grammar is a fluid construct, evolving as language and speech patterns evolve.

We don’t form our sentences the same way that Shakespeare and his contemporaries did. And truthfully, sometimes grammar doesn’t make any logical sense. Anyone who has learned English as a second language can speak to the absurdity that is pluralizing noose/goose/moose.

The Importance of Correct Grammar

So if the rhyme and reason of the English language is subject to the whims of the Kardashians’ sentence structure, why bother with grammar at all? Why not create all plurals by adding an “x” to the end of the word? Why not use commas instead of exclamation points? If language is constantly changing, why bother learning rules that are going to change too?

The short answer: consistency.

The reason that the rules of grammar exist is to give all speakers of the same language a playbook to make sure that they are understood by each other.

If you decided one day to stop pluralizing anything and just use the singular form for everything, that’s great for your personal journaling or expression. Most other English speakers will need some guidance as to how many cows are actually in that pasture you’re talking about—or are they in multiple pastures?

Readers Can’t Read Your Mind

You can sprinkle periods wherever you want in a sentence, but readers are going to expect that thought you’re trying to express will have concluded when they reach that period. Making a dependent clause a sentence all by itself is avant-garde, but when your reader can’t figure out whether it’s supposed to modify the sentence before it or after it, you’ve got a problem.

Rules Are Rules for a Reason

Some might argue that rules are made to be broken. In the case of writing, bending some of the rules can be a form of expression. However, rules should not be broken for the sake of breaking them. You’re not going to keep the attention of an audience if they have to struggle to make sense of what you’ve written.

Rules can be annoying and inconsistent, but they provide guidelines for language comprehension that are universally applied to language speakers. If your writing is incoherent, your audience is left perplexed and sometimes won’t bother finishing your magnum opus.

What grammatical structure is your favorite? Which one do you find the most frustrating? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

We love messing with rules at the Write Practice. For the first ten minutes of your practice, write about a character interacting with a winter storm. This can be a rainstorm or snowstorm (since not everyone gets snow in the winter). Structure your sentences as though your 6th grade English teacher is over your shoulder and correcting your comma splices as you go.

Take the next five minutes of your practice and destroy everything you just wrote. Throw grammatical rules to the wind, but pick something to keep consistent. What are ways you can toy with the rules of grammar and still make yourself understood?

If you’re feeling brave, post your practice in the comments. Be sure to leave notes on your fellow writers’ practices too.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Gary G Little

    Have fun folk. In the end I threw out all punctuation and adopted what is called Hungarian notation.

    Where in the hell did this storm come from … Checked weather last night … They didn’t say nothing ’bout no storm … Ah crap running late … I-95’s gonna be backed up forever … Com’on Tim get out of the damn bathroom … Oh god can you give a courtesy flush my brother? Damn, look at channel 5, more snow all the way to work ‘cording to the damn weather man … What were they doing yesterday playing with something? Thought they had all that fancy shmancy equipment to forecast … Well they sure as hell missed this god damn storm … shower, better have some hot water Timothy … Ugh that hot water feels good … Hurry … Time is ticking and we got a small water heater … Gotta get on the road … Dogs fed yes … Pee pads changed Ahh Tim did his stuff, took the trash bag out Ouch glad that’s his job That wind out the back is brutal There dishwasherLoadedAndStToRunAndNowPetMuttMyLunchPreppedAndInTheCarWhichYESSTARTLletItRunKnockSnowOffBackandFrontWindowsAndIAmOnMyWayToWork

    • Christine

      Congratulations, Gary. You’ve created a genuine mess — and yet I can still make some sense of it. 🙂

      Last week I started reading a book written in actually much the same style. As with your example, this writer made no distinguishing marks between the MC’s thinking or speech or another person’s words. Thankfully the writer did use paragraphs to separate these.

      I made it through the first chapter. It’s kind of like wading through deep snow.

    • Alix V. Bates

      I had fun and you made your point splendidly.

  • Beth Schmelzer

    I love colons in literature: when they are used correctly! I am most frustrated by the use of sentence fragments interjected willy nilly. So many authors think that fragments are de rigeur. Not missing the emphasis!

  • Well said! I am a bit of a grammar bore, I admit, but it’s there to help understanding. One of my pet hates is the use of a plural verb with a collective noun. (The team are.) This seems to be endemic in the UK at the moment.

  • Christine

    Visibility was so poor as Annette made her way home that evening, and snow was building up in drifts on the highway, making her journey even more treacherous. Peering into the whiteness, she saw a thick drift only a few seconds before her wheels plowed into it, and she automatically veered slightly to the left and touched the brake.

    Not smart, she told herself, hearing the chatter of the anti-lock brakes, and the impact tossed the front of her car toward the oncoming lane, so she pulled the steering wheel to the right, hoping for the best.

    The car’s back end slid sideways to the left, so Annette spun the steering wheel first left, then right, then left again, trying to steer out of the skid. It took all the self-discipline she had to keep her foot off the brake pedal, but her efforts paid off, however, and after a few anxious seconds her car righted itself on the road.

    She took a deep breath, thinking she was home free again, but then her car was hit by this huge gust of wind bearing a enveloping blanket of whiteness, which made Annette hold her breath feeling smothered by the white-out.

    The aggressive wind shoved her car to the left, so she steered right, wondering where on earth her lane was now, but then she heard a soft whump, and saw a huge poof of snow shower rise up over and around her, and her car came to a dead stop. Like many others on this stormy night, Annette was in the ditch.

  • Are you sure you said to destroy it?

    This was new; White drifts flying at the window like bullets that kept her eyes fastened on the window. At twenty years old she was captivated by frozen water vapor, and though she had realized how pathetic she must look she made no attempt to move from the window.
    Florida had been this girl’s home since she was three years old and this was the first time she remembered seeing the intricate beauty of snow, which coming down in a harsh welcome that she realized she must venture out into, and if she was ever to make it to work on time she’d better start now.

    One step out the door. And though she was dressed very warmly and, in her opinion, quite ridiculously, it gave her the first experience of her life in walking in such an icy blast; The weather man had said this was one of the worst storms of the year. She had just arrived three days ago, so she would have to take his word for it, and the minute the needles of snow touched her face, and the wind swept past her so fast it nearly sent her tumbling backwards, she believed him. Approaching her car, she groaned when she saw the layer of ice on the windshield, this was one of the many things she had realized she overlooked when she had moved here. With no desire to stand in the snow any longer than necessary, she pulled her credit card from her pocket and began to chip away at the ice, and suddenly wondered if the car would even start. Maybe leaving the south hadn’t been such a wonderful idea….

    Being the grammar freak that I am, this was harder than coming up with an actual practice. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘destroyed’ either, but it hurts enough just looking at it! 🙂

    “Whatsoever ye do, do unto the glory of God”
    Reagan

  • Rodrick Rajive Lal

    I agree entirely with you, Liz! In fact what surprises me so much is when people tell me that the teaching of formal rules of grammar is passe and not required. Somehow I very strongly believe that the teaching of formal rules of grammar should be encouraged in school syllabus not only for ESL learners, but also for those students whose mother tongue it may be. Somehow, the syllabus framers in India have veered away from the teaching of formal grammar in schools even though more than ninety eight per cent of the learners study English as a second language. For a teacher of English, this lack of knoweldge of rules of grammar is highly irritating, especially when you have to assess written answer scripts. True, you can only bend rules of grammar if you have some knowledge of the same, otherwise it will only be about breaking rules of grammar to craft an answer that does not make sense! Teaching of communicative English is all about communicating effectively, and that is not possible without the teaching of formal rules of grammar!

  • Sofia

    Guys, is anyone using the typobounty app to report typos online? I saw a post on one of my social media accounts but I really wanted some more feedback on it. I would appreciate the help!

  • Tamela

    Didn’t noticed of tons of grammar that i needed to redo my novel….

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  • Davidh Digman

    My link to this article was swallowed by my overactive spam filter, so please accept my apologies for the tardiness of my response.

    I believe that you are right in what you assert about the rules of grammar. I also believe that Joe is equally correct. It all depends upon your context.

    The various Standard Englishes exist for a number of good reasons, so each and every one of your points is true.

    For non-fiction, and for some fiction, Australian, British or American Standard English rules clarify one’s intentions.

    However, when writing characters, I absolutely reserve the right to hang, draw, emasculate, quarter or otherwise desecrate any and all rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling and even syntax.

    My only restriction here is that any such desecrations must be in service of characterisation and setting. In other words, they must be in service of story.

    Consider how Huckleberry Finn would read had it been written in American Standard English.

    Or Moby Dick?

    So you are both right. Please make peace with each other and pat each other on the back.

    In the interest of world peace.