How Important is Grammar?

As someone who really disliked learning grammar in school, I hate to say this, but grammar matters.  A lot.  People will judge you as less intelligent if you can’t use “they’re”, “there”, and “their” properly.  Or if you don’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its.”  (And, more important, as a writer, an agent or editor may not buy your work if you make mistakes like that in your query or submission.)

Having said that, I also think there’s a line where it doesn’t matter.  When someone starts to debate you over whether the period goes inside the quotation mark or outside the quotation mark, you’re probably in the safe range (and may be dealing with different conventions used in different countries).  Not to say that there aren’t folks out there who get all snooty about technical grammar rules, but when you get to that point you’re dealing with a very small group of people who probably had too much time on their hands as children.  (This is where I point out to those people that I’m an A- type of person not an A+ type and that they’re welcome to correct what I wrote themselves.  Or, better yet, I go find a source who says that whatever rule they’re adamant about, like “don’t end a sentence in a preposition” is not gospel.)

So, here’s where I come out on the grammar debate:

1. If you can’t communicate your ideas effectively to your target audience because of grammar (and spelling and word usage) issues, then you have a problem and you need to fix it.

2. In a corporate environment where you’re working for a boss, learn your boss’s idea of proper grammar.  And if you find yourself correcting something throughout an entire document, stop and think that maybe, just maybe whoever wrote it has a different idea of what’s proper.  If they write your performance evaluation or pay your check, think twice about correcting them on something like that.  You may be technically correct.  You may also be technically unemployed if you keep it up.  (We once had to tell a junior employee to stop taking out the double spaces after every period.  Nice attention to detail, but the wrong details to pay attention to.)  (Note that this advice does not apply to misuses of they’re, there, and their.  Assuming you know what you’re doing that is…)

3. Know your audience.  I have a few Facebook friends who when they communicate with one another use the most atrocious spelling and grammar I’ve ever seen.  But, guess what?  They all use the same atrocious grammar and spelling.  And when these guys communicate with their moms they suddenly know how to spell basic words and construct logical sentences, so what they’re doing is signalling that they belong to a specific group through their “misuse” of grammar and spelling.  If you’re targeting a niche market, make sure you know how to communicate with them.

4.  As a writer, you should know the basics of grammar, but, once you’ve mastered the basics, you’re much better off improving your ability to tell a story rather than mastering the little technicalities.  The better the story you can tell (assuming you can get your point across – see #1) the less grammar will matter.

5. Having said that, you should know enough about grammar to be willing and able to “break the rules.”  I’ve stumbled across more than one person who somehow has become convinced that you can never use passive voice in writing.  Ever.  Here’s what Strunk and White has to say about passive voice: “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

I’ve seen this taken even further to the point where people criticize the use of past perfect in a story.  If the whole story is in past perfect, yeah, you probably have a problem.  If one sentence is, you’re probably ok.  But you either need to have seen enough varied uses, mastered grammar, or have an ego the size of a house (like I do) to stand up to people who tell you things like that.

6. If you want to be published, listen long and hard to any advice an agent or editor gives you.  (But, again, they’re not infallible, so you need to know enough to think about what they say and give a reasoned explanation for why you disagree.  I’m not published yet, but the same concept applies here as with a corporate-type job.  Don’t argue just to argue, but if there’s a reason you did something the way you did, be willing and able to defend it.  AFTER you think about the advice for a bit.)

So, again, keep in mind that I’m unpublished and talking out of the wrong orifice.  But, if you want some experts on grammar, Strunk and White seem to be “the guys” so check out The Elements of Style.  (And keep in mind that language is constantly evolving and you’re going to need to be able to evolve with it.)

(No posts for the next couple of days.  I’m going kayak fishing.  Hopefully, this time around I can manage to not tip over the kayak in the middle of the sea.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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