Too many grammar rules dam the writing flow

Pretty much every week I am riveted by a great blog debate about the fine points of grammar. Last week, it was Don Ranly on Ragan Daily Headlines going on about pronouns.

Good points, Don and the many people who commented. You’re right: Observance of grammar rules has plummeted, especially since teachers began ignoring them in favor of creative flow.

Unfortunately, there’s a generation of people who missed out on the protocols that help us understand each other. On top of that, many people seemed to have forgotten what they were taught, just like I no have clue about basic calculus or the periodic table of elements.

We tend to remember what’s easy for us and relevant to our lives. If I tried to remember everything I’d been taught, my brain would explode.

But when the pendulum swings back to grammatical purity and people insist on a return to the rules-for-the-sake-of-rules school of grammar, I am left shaking my head.

Having edited business people for many years, let me tell you that misused pronouns are the least of our worries. In most cases, the misuse is so commonly accepted that it does not interfere with understanding. Whether you read “it’s him” or “it’s he” makes little difference, though the “he” example may sound a little pretentious.

I would prefer to focus on the rules, such as the difference between “it’s” and “its”, that make a difference to our understanding and let go of the ones that just aren’t worth debating.

Another example of rules that I often ignore is subject-predicate agreement when the subject is singular but people think of it as plural. Take the example of “The team celebrated its project completion” versus “The team celebrated their project completion.”

Most people would say the second example sounds right. Plus “its” turns people into objects, making the writing less human. Taking liberties with subject-predicate agreement also lets writers and editors side step awkward “he or she” constructions.

When most people are uncertain about how to write something, they go back to what sounds right in speech, not what their teacher said. We learn our first language orally, long before we can print, let alone understand the rules. If our parents speak well, we do too.

When I first learned French in school, it was all about memorization and learning the rules and the long lists of exceptions. But my French became so much better once I was able to converse, even badly, watch television or listen to client conversations, which many of us have opportunity to do in officially bilingual Canada.

With German, which I studied for five years, there was little opportunity for this kind of immersion. I am in awe when I hear German people speak, because I don’t know how they can so quickly process all the language’s complicated rules. But of course they don’t think of the rules. They just talk, as they have since they learned how to speak.

People do need to follow many of the grammar rules so they won’t look stupid, as Seth Godin reminded us in a recent post. But there’s a a more vital imperative for the rules that help us understand each other.

So let’s not get rid of all the rules. But let’s focus on the ones that help us communicate. And let’s remember that most people consider what sounds right, not the rules, when they are making writing decisions.

Besides, as bloggers and other social media people know, writing that is conversational is far friendlier than stilted, grammatically correct sentences.

Language evolves. As a community, we need to provide direction on which rules to strengthen and which ones to allow to die quietly. What do you think?

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4 Responses

  1. Yes, in my blogging I find myself breaking rules, which goes against my grain. But, I find that my writings are far more readable and enjoyable if I am more relaxed then I allow myself in my regular business correspondence. It is a delicate balance – one that I struggle with on a daily basis.

  2. Well said. I have long contended that language exists in the mouths of its speakers, not in dictinonaries and grammars. If someone came to America today to create a dictionary and grammar based on what was heard, it would look very different. For instance, it would be perfectly acceptable to go “lay down.” If 80% of English speakers use this term, this way, then that is the correct term by definition. Language must be allowed to evolve or we wouldst still speaketh thusly.

  3. Great post. I’ll take it as a lesson as I develop my own writing. Before I started to take writing seriously, I was a classically trained guitarist. In the classical realm rules are pretty much etched in stone, and I broke those rules quite a bit. My grades from college will prove that. A famous rocker always said, “If it sounds good—play it.” Although this is certainly subjective as to what sounds good—I approached my playing with this in mind. I find writing is similar—If it sounds good—print it. I look at it like this: there are no rules; only guidelines. I think this is great for fiction writers like myself. Non-fiction writers may have to adhere to something more structured, but in the end I agree with Mark, “Language exists in the mouths of its speakers.” So it seems to me considering a target audience and/or subject matter will determine the syntax.

  4. Good to hear I’m not alone. Now tell me: Which rules do you break? Which ones are important? I’m working on an e-book tentatively titled Write Like You Talk–Only Better. I would like to know what you think is better.

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