Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Important is Grammar?

In honor of the end of the school year, I decided to break out this old post of mine. I wrote it for my blog a few years ago, and it got a huge response. In the years since, I'm not sure how much my opinion has changed. It seems teaching Grammar is important, but at what age do you stop teaching it and expect kids to know it? So, here we go:

There are often conversations going on regarding someone's pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying "I could care less" when they mean "I couldn't care less." But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I'll back off of that... simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That's what I work on.

If a story starts:

"Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road."

I am not going to sit there and help fix the "me and you" and the correct "your" first. I'm going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head's spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write "Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda."

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it's easy to fix. You can--when you edit someone's piece--say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it's easier than saying, but there's a plot hole here on page 202 and I don't know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I'm always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I'm always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

FOR THE RECORD: This is in no way an attempt to trash teachers. I am a teacher and I believe in teachers. All teachers want to make students smarter and more well rounded young men and woman.

However, I think there is an old fashioned thinking vs. a new type of thinking among all citizens of the United States on whether or not grammar should be the key to good writing.


Jay Stringer said...

Totally. Too many rules in general.

I grew to hate spelling and grammer as a kid, because i couldn't do it. In a time before schools looked to see if there were any learning difficulties at play, i just got told the same things over and over and got angry.

And even as an adult, someone can make the best and most intelligent argument in the room, but others can pound on it if the grammar is wrong.

I find that people will often excuse me for getting things wrong because they know i have reason, but then turn and pound on somebody else for making the same errors. Why?

Too may rules, too many hang ups.

And grammer should not be a hangup when it comes to fiction. Sure, there are basics, the writer needs to have an idea of formatting, or an agent who does it for them (Cheers Decker!) But people and conversations are not grammatically correct.

Things can be fixed and formatted later, as you said. Even then, fixing the work is an easy trap to fall into. In the hands of the wrong editor, the spirit of the writer and story can be lost.

I think you hit it right; meaning.

A writer with perfect grammar is nothing without meaning or character. But a writer with meaning and character can survive poor grammar.

Gerald So said...

I think I'm going to reiterate my response to your post from years ago. To me, grammar is vitally important to clear thought. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon that the meaning behind a sentence is more important than how the sentence is structured, but grammar helps to teach meaning in the first place. If a person doesn't get that, he will have a more difficult time communicating his ideas--his meaning--later.

It's also easy to say that grammar isn't as important in fiction, but I think the grammar for fiction is simply different depending on the world you're writing about; it's no less important for your writing to be well structured.

I think everyone should know the parts of speech by seventh grade, but as a teacher I didn't see that. So I don't think we can have an age by which grammar is no longer taught, but then learning grammar is learning to communicate, something we continue all our lives.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

I could not disagree more.

Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than noticing a spelling or usage error. I'm sorry, but it's like trying to look at a picture through cracked glass. The cracks in the glass distract me from the image in the picture.

It does matter, because mistakes obscure meaning. Yes, sometimes I can figure out that you mean "you're" when you've written "your," but why should I have to? Why make your reader try to read your mind? The point of the written word is to share what's in your mind so that other people don't have to try to be psychic.

It's also a matter of understanding words as building materials. It matters a lot if you build a house with crooked angles and bent nails and cracked pieces of wood. If you can't use an apostrophe to show me that you understand that a letter is missing from a word, or that something belongs to someone, I don't trust your ability to use words on any greater scale.

If we were working in an oral tradition, it wouldn't matter — but we're not. We write things down so that people who don't know us, in other places and other times, will understand what we mean. Unless we all follow the agreed-upon rules for that method of communication, it doesn't work the way it should.

Lamar said...

It's one thing to break rules of grammar in a work -- fiction or non-fiction -- for a specific effect.

It's another thing entirely to break rules of grammar because you don't care or, worse, because you don't know what they are.

The entire point of grammar is to enhance meaning and communication. If anything you write can be intended to mean anything you want, then it means nothing, and all one is doing is inviting misunderstanding, and thus miscommunication.


SueH said...

I find too much casual bad grammer jarrs when I read a book. I have to go back and re-read sentences and paragraphs to get the sense of what the writer/character is saying.

Spelling or malapropisms also tend to annoy me!

.....but we all have the odd typo, something I am often guilty of, when writing in haste! ;-)

John McFetridge said...

As Gerald says, "... grammar helps to teach meaning in the first place. If a person doesn't get that, he will have a more difficult time communicating his ideas--his meaning--later."

Except many writers are not trying to communicate their own ideas, they're trying to communicate the ideas of the characters they've created.

And to do that, meaning and grammar combine to create voice. And yes, sometimes the meaning is muddled and the grammar is incorrect.

Dave's example of, "I could care less," is a common mistake that should sometimes be written that way.

What takes me out of a story fast is when the narrator's voice is too different from the voices of the characters.

But that's just taste. I prefer an invisible narrator and characters telling their own stories. That kind of writing isn't for everyone.

Now, I wonder how we'd feel if this question was reversed and Dave had asked, "How important is meaning?"

Graham Powell said...

I think AnswerGirl pretty much hit the nail on the head, but I'll add one thought: writing is how we transmit meaning to the reader. It's the *only* was we transmit it.

Grammar is a tool that we use for effect. When done intentionally, bad grammer, average grammar, or overly precise grammar can be used to color the reader's perception of the bare meaning of the words.

So, in my opinion, you have to be able to do any of those. If you need to write good grammar you've got to be able to pull it off.

Gerald So said...

Responding to my comment, John McFet wrote:

[M]any writers are not trying to communicate their own ideas, they're trying to communicate the ideas of the characters they've created.

And to do that, meaning and grammar combine to create voice. And yes, sometimes the meaning is muddled and the grammar is incorrect.

I agree that writers need to get into the voices of their characters, including differences in their grammar. I contend that characters' ideas, muddled or focused, begin as the writer's ideas for the characters. As Graham said, the writer needs to apply characters' grammar--good, bad, or ugly--consistently, to show their ideas make sense to them. At its core, grammar is consistency. As others have commented, meaning cannot be transmitted or received without consistency.

Dana King said...

Something called linguistics was all the rage when I was of an age to learn grammar, which means I was never taught any. I learned grammar much the way I learned about sex, in places where my mother would faint to know I'd gone, and from people who may not have had a firm grip on it themselves. Most of my grammar skills come from having read a lot, so when i write something myself often say, "This doesn't look/sound right," and will rewrite until it does, even though I can't identify the specific error.

That being said, I think it's easy to forget good grammar is not the end; it's the means. Rules of grammar evolved over time as ways to make meaning more clear across a broader spectrum of people. If it's obvious what is meant, the grammar should be somewhat flexible to suit the situation. My favorite example is Churchill's(?) great line, "That is something up with which i shall not put." To say a sentence should never end with a preposition is one thing; it's practice it's something else.

I'm not defending bad grammar. I'm just saying there are levels of it, and the grammar must serve its role. Lower than a certain standard, it will obfuscate rather than clarify. That's where the real work needs to be done.

DharmaMeetsDogma said...

As a writing teacher at the college level, I agree with you. In my developmental writing classes you can often (sadly) find writing that is at a elementary school level.

Non-native speakers, they usually only ask for grammar lessons and want to know how to form "correct" sentences. On the other side, for many native speakers with very low skills, grammar is as painful and pointless as it was when they were kids, yet they also think that it is the only saving grace for their writing.

When I point out the larger issues of meaning and reason, the panic of having to write more returns. Dealing solely with grammar eases the pain for students (people) because it is mechanical and safe: they think - fix the grammar and it's all good.

The teacher in me says no, it's not. Yet, I get where they are coming from. Most of them don't have a store, giraffe, and heads spilling in the road (or similarly illogical nonsense)in the same essay. Most just have weak, unsupportable arguments that need more work, better examples, better thinking.

In all though, while I can look past grammar and push meaning, I know their future bosses will focus on poor grammar (or not as I am currently employed in corporate America and witness poorly written emails daily).

The sad fact is that even with poor grammar, most powerful people will be able to hire us lowly English MA-type freaks to take care of those silly writing projects. le sigh.