DOES GRAMMER MATTER ANY MORE?
I spend a large amount of my working day making sure the copy I create for my customers is going to be understood by their intended readership. That readership varies from a CEO, looking for a top level briefing on the latest IT threats, to a 15 year old youth volunteer looking for new ways to help people get into sport.
I was recently asked by a friend if they thought grammar really mattered, since (and I quote) “As long as whoever is reading it understands it, that’s job done right?”
It’s easy to cite examples of common grammatical errors that totally change the construct of what is being said. We all know a panda that eats, fires a gun at the cashier, then gets up and goes without paying the bill. But that’s just a joke right? We all make mistakes in our writing whether through ignorance, error or carelessness. To err is human, get over it. No one really cares about the correct placement of a comma if the sentence maintains its intended meaning, yeah?
I’ve had this same argument with many of my more pedantic (and loveable, if your reading this) friends. I’m going to get off the fence and do a bit of research on the subject of grammar.
Comment from History; Who Said what About Whom.
It’s fairly well known that one of the most influential writers in history, William Shakespeare, was prone to the odd gaff. He also simply loved making up new words. His use of who and whom left, if “proper” grammar is used as the yard stick, much to be desired. None of these bent rules seemed to affect his fairly stellar career. But where did these rules, these dos and don’ts, come from? It’s not like there is a stone tablet somewhere with the rules of English grammar engraved upon its face.
The answer to this question, as is often the case with questions about the English language, comes from the root language Latin. As Latin became the lingua franca of Western Europe for the educated, teaching reading and writing became the norm for these educated few. The standard set of rules that Latin introduced gave those who shared it a massive advantage when it came to communicating with each other (and hiding their true intentions from those who did not speak it).
As the infrastructure of the Romans crumbled, Latin was replaced by the “Old English” of Anglo Saxon Britain. Old English became, over time, fragmented and had many, very narrowly, localised customisations. At the time of the Magna Carta there were between 30 and 50 distinct languages in Britain alone; most of them mutually unintelligible.
First Seek to Understand then to be Understood
The precision that Latin offered to the writer was useful, but only to those that spoke it. Writers such as Chaucer who helped coalesce our use of common English had to deal in a language that was studded with strange spellings and odd word placement. Any student of English will tell you of their befuddlement upon first reading the original Canterbury tales.
The printing press changed all this. As books and manuscripts flooded their way across Europe and became common in libraries across the world a new standardised English came about. Who did the standardisation? The printers of course! Common words such as “egg” are only in their present form because printers like William Caxton decided, seemingly on the spot, that they should be so.
From here powerful forces such as the King James Bible shaped and moulded the English language into what has become known as Standard Written English.
English has evolved for thee!
You’ll have spotted the common theme here. Namely that communication is simply about being understood. It can be as “correct” as you like; if no one understands it then it goes in the bin.
“Thee” and “thou” went the way of the dodo by the end of the 18th Century, unless you were of the Quaker persuasion. This trend for English to evolve shows no sign of abating. About 800 to 1000 new word (neologisms, if you’d like to add a new word to your dictionary) are added to English dictionaries every year.
Words are, as ever, only part of the story. The correct placement of exclamation mark, the semi-colon, and our old friend the oxford comma are almost sure to start a debate; one that only reaches a smouldering crescendo when one of the arguing party has been reduced to tears of frustration.
If you’re looking for consistency, you’re in for a long wait. Throw into this mix complex rules such as countable/uncountable comparisons or the correct form for the present perfect and the only consistently reliable result is apoplexy. The more complex the rules of a language the more likely that these rules will be moulded to the needs of those who use it.
So What’s in a Word?
You’ve got an unregulated and unguided linguistic evolution that can change as quickly as a modern internet meme is forgotten. How do you know if you’re writing using correct grammar? Well you don’t really. At least not unless you’ve already established the “rules” with the reader in advance. Correct grammar is in the eye of the beholder. The grammar used by two teenagers in a long text message is still “correct”, but only for them. An 80 year old Oxford English professor would tear out whatever was left of his hair trying to understand it! Likewise this same professor’s finest paper on some esoteric subject would be almost mumbo jumbo to the two chatting teens. Not better or worse, just different. The conveyance of intended meaning is everything in language.
This “reader agreement” is what websites do every day. They establish a baseline for word usage and apply a common tone to their articles and their readership either accept this or move on. Of course most websites will stick to, more or less, the common lexicon and grammar for the language they are written in. While there is a widely accepted correct English grammar, it’s no longer the be all and end all of good writing.
Does grammar matter? Yes; but being understood by your readership is more important.