how important is good grammar?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Penelope Trunk @ Brazen Careerist has an interesting post on grammar; I like these sentences:

Most grammar rules don’t matter, though. That is, if you get them wrong, the reader still can find the meaning.

Whether the particulars are true or not, I agree with the main idea: The best way to write is whatever gets your point across. (And yes, I'm aware of the grammatical failings of that statement.)

And grammar and spelling and the rules of the English language aren't as important as many people make them out to be (especially some of her commentors--ouch!) -- for many of the reasons she cites, and, I'd also add, because they're always changing. Case in point: "Today" used to be spelled with a hyphen.

Something I do quibble with, and at least one commenter pointed this out, too, are the two "grammar" errors in the statement
Over 28,000 children drew doodles for our homepage.

Vote for the one that will appear here!

According to Penelope,
The AP Stylebook says "over" is a way to move—a preposition. And “more than” must precede a number. Also, if you are voting for one, specific doodle, then the AP Stylebook tells you to use “which” rather than “that.”

They're not so much grammatical errors as they are inconsistencies with the AP Stylebook. (And if it's true that the AP Stylebook was set up to minimize printing costs, "over" would seem more correct than "more than.")

Despite that, I get her point:
Anyway, if Google is deciding that these rules are no longer useful guidelines, then we can all follow suit. And if you don’t, you risk being more newspaper and less Internet, and we know where that’s going to put your career…


Jim said...

I agree that in spite of poor grammar a written idea can still be conveyed. (I make no claim to be good at this mind you!) However, this assumes that the reader is receptive to taking your idea on board provided of course, that you can just form that perfectly crafted argument or concept.
The reality is that as your words are read, the reader experiences one of the following ( or degrees of one or the following):- The read something they know and accept, something new or something they don't agree with.
If it is something they agree with then poor grammar, typos etc are less relevant. If they don't agree with your comments or it is new information what happens? They will be, on some level, in a process of managing their own anxiety regarding this new information. Now this might not be the kind of anxiety you experience performing karaoke in front of your peers while still stone cold sober or the kind you experience the morning of a visit to the dentist who is about to remove an impacted wisdom tooth but it is the kind of anxiety which elevates the emotions sufficiently in the subject to get them into “fight” mode and ready “argue the toss”.
Why? because people are intrinsically uncomfortable when their beliefs about the world are challenged.
Unlike animals that predominantly work from their instincts, humans depend on an intimate knowledge of the way the world works. We like to figure out the environmental and social rules when we are young and follow them because, if we don't, we may be subject to physical harm or end up a social outcast. This is simplified but it is the way it works.
Consequently, the first reaction in the reader who is confronted and mildly anxious will be to find reason to discredit the content and diminish the writer’s credibility. Why, because they feel uncomfortable if you tell them things that challenge their beliefs. Why? Because on some fundamental level they believe their survival strategy is flawed and they are lucky to have survived this far and certainly the future is looking grave unless they can find a way to discount this new information.
This all comes from a time in our distant paths where it was so important for our survival to get this stuff right. An intimate understand of the way the natural world works and a strong adherence to social interactive behaviour was an imperative...that’s why it pains us so much to think we might be doing it wrong. When we are young we modify our behaviour very quickly in response to mostly social queues. The older we get the more experiential evidence we have that our survival strategy beliefs are correct...after all we’re not dead so something must be working! As a consequence we are less likely to accept different information.
So in today’s world the avid Microsoft user feels compelled to defend Bill Gates from the smug marauding Linux convert...not exactly a life threatening mistake to pick the wrong operating system but we defend the paths we take in life like it is life threatening... because once it was important and those hard coded survival strategies stick with us.
Confronted with information that challenges beliefs the reader will focus on discrediting the writer. Bad spelling, poor grammar etc will be the immediate target thus providing a source of immediate relief. "What would you know... you can't even spell "

So, if you want your message to be taken on board by people who already agree with you then don't worry too much... but if you want to influence the non-believers and the borderline people, then it helps to make sure there are no chinks in your armour.(It goes without saying that will be some in mine!)

P.S Don't you love that expression "It goes without saying"...because clearly it doesn't"