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Why I Don't Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Stop Worrying)

Categories: Craft & Technique, General, New Titles From Writer's Digest.

I was probably the only student in my 8th grade class to look forward to English period, and copying down grammar lessons.

My English teacher, Mrs. McKinney, was methodical, strict, and exact about every aspect of the language. She told us exactly how to copy down the lessons, and what kind of paper to use (Steno pads). Plus we had competitions to see who could diagram sentences the fastest.

Everything I know about grammar I learned from Mrs. McKinney; I never had another teacher who delivered the information so logically and comprehensively. I am eternally grateful.

But if I have a pet peeve with writers (both beginning and published), it’s their unrelenting obsession & unforgiving attitude toward errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Whenever Writer’s Digest posts about a grammar issue, it invariably receives the most comments (and fiercest arguments). Whenever or wherever we have a grammatical fumble, in print or online, it’s like we’ve committed a cardinal sin—which is understandable, and which we’re sorry for, but …

Lighten up, people!

Why do I say this? For two reasons:

  1. Every one of us, from the day we are able to speak, instinctively know the universal grammar. You wouldn’t be able to converse with other people if you didn’t know it. So why doesn’t everyone have perfect written grammar? Primarily because we’re all flustered by the rules and regulations surrounding the written word—which is in a state of flux, by the way. To learn more about this issue, read about The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Pinker says, rather than learn irrelevant grammar rules, we should learn about clarity in writing, from books like The Elements of Style. I couldn’t agree more.
  2. Perfect grammar has nothing to do with great writing. Certainly, I will admit that people who are better at grammar often have more sensitivity for the nuance of language—and tend to be better writers—but for the most part, facility with grammar has nothing to do with storytelling talent.

So, I hate to see a new/beginning writer worry about grammar, or even apologize in advance that their grammar isn’t perfect. I really don’t care as long as the language isn’t getting in the way of understanding and enjoying the story.

The worry you invest in grammar is energy diverted away from the meat of the writing. Grammar is a surface-level issue that should be taken care of separately, near the end of the writing process, and can even be corrected or polished by someone else.

Yes, I can spot an error on a page from across the room. I love being able to do it. But in the end, it’s no more important than being able to balance my checkbook, organize a file cabinet, or back-up my hard drive.

However, I do advocate sensitivity to language. For that, you can study up with the most recent edition of Grammatically Correct (just released this month!), which is like having your own Mrs. McKinney by your side.

If you’d like Mrs. McKinney on crack, then I recommend the Writer’s
Digest Grammar Desk Reference
.

For one of the best guides I’ve
seen on the nuance of language (without the focus on “correctness”),
try Rhetorical Grammar.

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32 Responses to Why I Don't Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Stop Worrying)

  1. Gloria Nye says:

    Okay, you made that glaring grammatical error in the first sentence to test us! Very clever.
    I agree that grammar is here to serve the writer, not the other way around. Good article.

  2. Nicole says:

    L.C. Sterling. I agree with you. There are rules and grammar should be respected and not adapted to speech.
    Here is an example—it drives me insane:

    The Committee have come to their decision. (It is used to mean the committee members why don’t they use members)?
    The band were turning up their instruments.

    The Webster says that: you can readily see that the sentence could not refer to the band as a unit. That would mean that the members of the band were all working on the same instrument.
    I say that the sentence is grammatically wrong. It should say the players or members are turning up their instruments (not the band).

    The police are coming.

    What I learned in school (not that long ago) was: The noun must be in accordance with its antecedent. Police is singular in number so it should be third person singular and not third person plural. Then it should say: The policemen are coming, or the police (meaning force) is coming.

    Lloyd Lemons. I believe that you have misinterpreted Sterling completely. Devolution is right. Shakespeare, Molière: We can no longer return to that way of expression. I believe that’s what he was saying.

    Many people will defend bad grammar because it is their weakness. Why can we not write properly and write good stories at the same time? The first makes it easier to understand, and the later makes it interesting.

  3. Lloyd Lemons says:

    Thank you Jane. It was so nice to hear YOUR take (a writing professional) on grammar. From a guy who’s been writing professionally for 30 years, and who flunked every English class I ever took, I agree with you. Anything that gets in the way of communication, or anything that gets in the way of story, should be done away with, and sometimes that includes certain rules of grammar. You just said what I’ve wanted to say for many years.

    To L.C. above: I believe this is the evolution of language not the devolution of language. Milton? Shakespeare? Please, this is 2010. No one speaks like that anymore, so it’s not even a good argument.

  4. uh … um … uh … er … yeah, um, okay …

    Well, grammar is a continually evolving animal. If we were transported to Milton’s or Shakespeare’s time (let alone Molière’s), would we be able to hold our own? I think not.

    The problem for me is whether we’re contributing to devolution of the language or helping it survive. The rampant mis-use of there’s drives me insane. And yet people not only use it in speech, it’s now in writing. The Web doesn’t help, of course, since everyone is writing as fast as they can and typically not checking spelling, grammar, punctuation … etc.

    So I don’t know. Really, I don’t. I think I’m ready to take arms to defend grammar. (Strunk & White will be my shield.)

  5. I agree with you Jane, but I do think a writer should continue to improve upon his craft. Maybe just not get caught up, like you said, in obsessing about it.
    I have to admit I do get a tad upset when I see spelling errors in print or splashed across the television screen that seem to be major obvious. My favorite and most recent has been in a newspaper when it was stated that "Everyone waited in the PUBIC area…." (Should have been public.)
    But alas, we are merely humans and humans make mistakes whether they be Freudian or lack of knowledge.

  6. D. G. Hudson says:

    It’s always interesting to hear a person’s take on grammar. Those people I’ve known who fixate on proper grammar are usually not as eloquent in their writing, or thinking. Language is dynamic, and changes with each generation.

    Grammar rules can be more easily blurred when one is speaking, but in writing, the error is visible and easier to spot.

    BTW, was Yoda’s grammar indicative of his species, or just the Jedi way? He’s one of my favorite characters, since his speech contained lots of danglers. You always knew it was Yoda talking.

  7. Saphira says:

    I agree that grammar shouldn’t get in the way of telling a story. That does not mean that you don’t go back and fix your mistakes in revision! As an English teacher, I can tell you that "revision" is an alien concept to most students, even after they see that revising their work will yield them a better paper/story and thus a better grade. Anyone who has read an internet message board knows that blanket statements like "You should stop worrying about grammar" seem to be the basis of posts that make no use of punctuation or decent sentence structure and thus must be read several times just to understand them. And yet we say that grammar is not important? I don’t think so.

    The teaching of grammar in this country is minimal in terms of time, and negligible in terms of effort, and it shows every time we come across incoherent ramblings online. Inflection and body language may make up for those deficits in person, but in writing it simply doesn’t fly. Language may be evolving, but that’s not an excuse to toss out rules that have also evolved over the centuries to ensure that we can understand one another. Good grammar costs nothing, after all!

  8. Perry says:

    Ha, so true. I have seen so many writers who get stuck in revision because they focus on the grammar when they are in the structure revision. Grammar corrections, where they are needed come in as the last pass before starting to submit, in my opinion.

    Great grammar can’t save a weak story. A great story can forgive some weak grammar.

  9. ali says:

    Often great voice is made possible by breaking grammar rules, don’t ya think?

    Great, great post. Thanks for letting me lighten up!

  10. Tom Bentley says:

    Jane, it’s good to see that your post here exemplifies the very tumult you describe in writing about grammatical grapplings and the reactions to them. I’ve taken great pleasure in reading books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Woe Is I and The Transitive Vampire and am an occasional copyeditor myself, but I have to agree that obsession with the tools can distract from the quality of what they shape. (Though it is nice to have a careful gardener come and deadhead any sentence roses that have MANGLED shapes.)

    I just wrote a post on being asked to teach—heaven forfend!—a grammar class, juxtaposed with the notion of finding your writing voice. I’d much rather teach what can be done with language than the proper sequence of buttoning up its (stuffed?) shirt.

  11. Lovy Boheme says:

    Many of the negative comments made in my crtique group are about my grammar. I will always freely admit that my weakest points are grammar and vocabulary. If I’m being honest, I prefer it this way. What matters to me is if people are entertained by what I write and if they’re dying to hear what happens next. So while I’m happy to have people around me to tell me where I need to rearrange a sentence, it’s the fact that I didn’t put them to sleep that really energizes me for the next revision.

  12. Ray Thursby says:

    @Jeff

    What can I say but "wOOt! !!!!111!!eleventy!!!!11!!!"

    Ah, the future of our language! It’s unlimited!

    If anyone wants to get into the matter of being overly concerned about grammar in a rough draft, that’s a whole ‘nother subject. I do, however, get a little tired of reading rough drafts between covers, or seeing them pass for finished work on the ‘net….

  13. Jeff says:

    Do you know what might be a neat experiment? If my novel gets published, if it is well received, if it becomes bigger than that Twilight offal, if it becomes a blockbuster film and if I make appearances on Leno, Oprah, Glenn Beck, The Daily Show and Colbert, I’ll post a blog article touting the acceptability of leaving out every third vowel in one’s manuscript. I’d love to see how that flies.

    I mean, at that time I’d have a house on the Outer Banks, hot and cold running champagne and two kinds of pie for breakfast and have Warren Buffett as my butler. I’d be an expert, right?

  14. @Ray — Language evolution isn’t an excuse, it’s a documented linguistic phenomenon. Words fall in and out of use (thee/thou?). Irregular verb forms become regularized over time. People forget that grammar is a way to describe the way the language is, not a straitjacket to keep language the same.

    That said, I don’t think people are actually disagreeing that much. I’m sure Jane would object to completely ungrammatical sentences and caveman-like utterances. But if there’s a grammatical "rule" that the majority of native speakers are unaware of and break on a regular basis, it’s probably not worth working oneself into a frenzy about. That rule is probably on its way out.

  15. Kristin Emge says:

    As a linguist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. I constantly lock horns with English majors (young and old) on issues like these. There’s a time and place for everything; it’s beneficial to know the Standard, and of course you wouldn’t want to be without it when it comes to televised speeches and official documents. But in one’s own rough drafts? Among one’s own friends? To apply the Standard to every facet of language does nothing but waste time and erase individuality. We know so much more about language than can be described by grammar "rules" (just a little sytax and soon you’ll hit things you can’t explain), and we can say so much more about ourselves when we forego the rules and speak or write however the hell we want (see sociolinguistics for that one). It’s human to make "mistakes" . . . let us live a little!

  16. Grammatically Incorrect is a great book! I do think that grammar is important, to a point. It drives me crazy when I see obvious grammatical (or spelling) mistakes in what are supposed to be "professional" publications (magazines, advertisements, etc.). A small mistake on someone’s blog, or even slightly larger mistakes on message board posts or comments, I don’t really care about.

  17. Strunk and White for the win! The Elements of Style is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the only usage guide a writer needs. Especially follow rule # 17.
    I think it bears mentioning that the level of grammatical "correctness" should match the expectations of the reader and the type of work being produced. There’s a world of difference between an IM and War and Peace. Each calls of its own application of grammar rules. Know your reader and know your work.
    Oh, and language isn’t evolving? Thou art mad if thou doth not believe in evolution. Mayhaps thou should get thee to a nunnery…

  18. Ray Thursby says:

    @Jane

    But I also do my best, and spend considerable time honing sentence construction, grammar and spelling before completing an article. And I’m known among the copy editors who have worked with me for turning in clean copy. If I’m an idiot-savant (possible), I’d rather emphasize the "savant" part….

    We can agree that the teaching of grammar is, in many instances, not handled well. Learning rules has never struck me as the best way to impart linguistic knowledge; instead, teachers should strive to get students to understand, on an instinctive level, what is right and what is not.

    The quality of a writer’s work is, to me, tied to his/her prowess with the mechanics of language. Deliberate rule-breaking doesn’t bother me; I enjoy it, and sometimes employ altered English for "style" purposes.

    But to return to my tired comparison from the last comment: if you can’t first play a tune in proper tempo with correct harmonies, you can’t improvise.

  19. @Ray – You point out something essential here:
    "I generally do things right, but don’t always know why."

    That’s pretty much the case for all of us when we begin to write (especially at a young age); we know the grammar of language instinctively because we know how to speak and make sense to other people. Language is most fundamental in its spoken form, and all written forms are derived from spoken.

    I don’t think people can speak "wrong," just as I don’t think people can write "wrong", except to confuse the rules of grammar or simply not know how to apply them to the written word. Ironically, it’s the teaching of grammar that confuses us most of all, and leads to the most errors.

    While I don’t advocate people being lazy or sloppy in their grammar (if they want to impress a publishing professional, the correct image needs to be presented), it does not mark a great writer simply to abide by the grammar book.

    Thus, I pass no judgment on a writer based on his knowledge of grammar. Bad writers abound whether they use correct grammar or not!

  20. Angel says:

    If a rule improves a statement’s clarity and eloquence, then it should be followed. If it doesn’t, and if it might even confuse the reader, then it should be ignored even if a few pedants drop their monocles in shock.

    I have to agree with Jane that the language is evolving. I think language, at least the English language, is like a democracy where the ones in power are those who use it; since nearly everybody is literate, more or less, that means everybody has influence over its future.

  21. Jeff says:

    @ Terry: Fix problems? Based on the above, why bother?

    I reckon when I pass on, Ashleys and Bradleys will be at Brown and Columbia studying whatever I have penned and burping monosyllabic grunts on how archaic my words were and that is sad.

    Oh well, I’ll just go watch Idiocracy again.

  22. Ray Thursby says:

    You disappoint me, Jane. The "it’s not really declining. It’s evolving" argument strikes me as the last refuge of the lazy.

    I suppose in this era of "citizen journalists" — those who have allowed publishers to slash compensation for professionals (otherwise known as mossbacks who take the time to write clean copy) — and the dominance of the copy-editor-free internet, I shouldn’t be surprised.

    We see grammar and word usage taking it on the chin everywhere, and in every instance where mistakes are noted, the response is invariably of the "so what?" variety. I suspect dinosaurs were evolving, too, right up to the moment when the last one hit the tar pits….

    It should also be noted that slovenly grammar, word usage and spelling are often accompanied by a lack of research and fact-checking.

    We shouldn’t let correct English imprison us, and that’s unnecessary anyway. But the fundamentals of the language are like the fundamentals of music: without them, what emerges is noise, not music. Without them, writing is reduced to an infinite-number-of-monkeys exercise dooming those of us who actually take the time to polish our prose to reading endless streams of incoherent babblings in search of kernels of intelligence.

    I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life. I learned to read early, and at home, and picked up enough raw skill to scoot through English classes. I generally do things right, but don’t always know why.

    For that reason, I bless the copy editors who have handled my work (yes, I’m a writer) over the years. They have improved my work when necessary, and I have learned from them.

    Even so, I know you are the voice of the future, Jane. Otherwise, Clive Cussler wouldn’t be a best-selling author….

  23. Terry says:

    I say the hell with grammar, spelling, etc. until the first draft is written. Stay in the creative flow and you’ll write a better story. Then, go back and fix all those problems.

  24. @Jeff – I highly recommend taking a look at Pinker’s book.

    All of us have been indoctrinated since a very young age to resist and shun "incorrect" grammar — but the idea of protecting our language is rather absurd.

    Language is a growing, changing thing. There is nothing to protect against, and our spoken tongue will always drive changes to the rules of written language whether we like it or not. It never goes in reverse.

    People have been complaining about the "decline" of language ever since Shakespeare’s time. But it’s not really declining. It’s evolving.

  25. I’m so glad to hear you say this. It backs what I wrote in one of my blog posts, Cart Before the Horse. For years, I fretted over writing the perfect sentence rather than concentrating on story. Sure, a writer needs to master grammar and the tools of writing (that’s a given), and sure, a good sentence adds to the reader’s overall reading pleasure, but not at the expense of story. Story comes first. As Dwight V. Swain says, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, "Your reader reads fiction because it creates a pleasurable state of tension in him, line by line and page by page." And then he adds, "Feeling is the place very story starts."

  26. Jeff says:

    I disagree wholeheartedly. If authors, educators, employers and society as a whole do not keep to a grammatical standard, English will continue its slow and steady death.

    My mom’s younger sister roomed with us when she was getting her Master’s in English. When my brother and I would misuse words or make a mistake in grammar, she’d holler at us from her room. To this day, I credit her with my love for what’s left of English.

  27. Kay Ross says:

    I disagree. I’m certainly not saying that perfect grammar (or even reasonably good grammar) automatically means the story is well told. And of course it’s sometimes completely valid, artistically, to bend or even break the rules of grammar (the best writers know how to do that effectively). However, poor grammar definitely does get in the way of my understanding and enjoyment of a story (or even of a tweet). Grammar IS important in communicating a compelling, meaningful message; it adds to clarity. I think writers need to know how language works; they need to be able to diagnose what works and what doesn’t work in a sentence, and they need to know how to fix it. Too often, publishing companies do not devote the necessary editing resources to fixing poor writing, so writers shouldn’t depend on them to do that.

  28. Great point about universal grammar. I think people lose track of the fact that grammar, or at least natural grammar, is an instinct (at least to native speakers). Over time, people have noticed regularities and codified them, but it’s the language that gives rise to grammar rules, not the other way around. When you forget that, is when you start obsessing over ridiculous things like split infinitives.

    There *is* such a thing as over education. My favorite example is when people say "The house belongs to Harry and I." Disclaimer, my linguistics knowledge is very basic, but I think this is a mistake that only educated people will make.

    "Me" is the default pronoun for native English speakers, so if ever in doubt, the speaker will usually default to "me." That’s why we get sentences like "Harry and me went to the store," — technically wrong, but often seen colloquially. But because English teachers are so enthusiastic about stomping out "me" in the subject position, kids get taught that we should always say "Harry and I", and people end up using that construct even in the object position. Hence, "The house belongs to Harry and I."

    I find this rather ironic.

  29. Melody Jones says:

    This is a refreshing take on grammar. I especially like your observation about how grammar obsession often takes away "from the meat of the writing", and I agree that the most heated conversations I’ve seen online are centered on grammar. This goes along with the advice to simply write first and worry about these kinds of issues later!

  30. Sharleen says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Jane. I agree that worry invested in grammar is energy diverted from the meat of the writing. I never worry about grammar (or spelling or punctuation) during the first stages of writing — grammar’s the realm of that "editor on your shoulder," the left-brain teacher/critic/whiny worry-wart who claims every sentence you write is stupid. Let that grammar gripe have the upper hand and you’ll spend an hour on your first sentence, constantly rearranging words and punctuation.

    Grammar issues are also "small picture" issues. If I’m worrying about whether or not what I’ve written contains a misplaced modifier, I’m not connected to the "big" idea of the scene I’m trying to write.

    "Grammar is a surface-level issue that should be taken care of separately, near the end of the writing process…" I agree absolutely. But it does need to be taken care of and while, in theory, your grammar can corrected by someone else, I’ve heard too many horror stories of books that made it to print without proper editing. So, when I finish a piece, I like to go over it and identify at least the obvious bloopers.

  31. Jevon Bolden says:

    This is wonderful, Jane! I think the key here is that "the language isn’t getting in the way of understanding and enjoying the story." I read poor grammar all the time in submissions, but then it’s coupled with bad storytelling. The other is that as an editor, I fix and correct bad grammar all the time for our published authors. The difference is that they know how to communicate clearly and tell a great story.

    I do see writers getting hung up–and discouraged–when it comes to perfecting their grammar usage. For some, they still have yet to identify and hone their voice and don’t know how to construct a plot or organize a solid how-to. At that point, grammar should be the least of their worries.

    I enjoy so-called "bad grammar" when it enhances tone, the author’s voice, or emphasis on a particular point.

    I agree with Claudia as well!

  32. I’ve found copy errors to be almost diagnostic of the reader. Readers who complain the most usually have significant personality disorders. They are frequently women who have no significant relationships with any bipeds. When reading, they cannot let go and enjoy the story. They are too busy judging, editing, feeling inferior/superior and being critical. They are like copy banchees ready to seize on an error and scream.

    Clean copy is very important to us. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on line editors to work through copy edits. It seems the more money we spend, the more eyes that see it, the more these creatures scream.

    The funny thing is that it’s always been this way. Tolkein, Joyce, even Patrick O’Brien talked about living with the horror of manual type. Every error he corrected could easily bring another error in type. And the ancestors of today’s copy banchees complained just as bitterly.

    There is no such thing as clean copy. There never was, and there never will be. Period.

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