The Rules of Grammar Matter. Until They Don’t.

  • Mastering the rules of grammar is a crucial component of good writing; it helps us write comprehensible content.
  • A well-honed sense of grammar also enables us to break the rules when advisable and produce interesting, readable text.
Breaking Down the Ways We Write

When I was a freshman in high school, we had what was known as “Diagram Week” in our Advanced English class. Ms. Perry, with her silver hair twisted in a fashionable knot at the nape of her neck, spent 5 days walking us through how to break up a sentence according to its various parts.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the process, diagramming is a way of breaking down a sentence’s grammatical or structural components. You use lines to separate or “branch off” subjects, verbs, or clauses to understand—visually—how sentences operate to convey meaning.

Some of us hated Diagram Week; some of us didn’t mind it; a few of us—including yours truly—loved it. Toward the end of the week, one of the “I hate this” students asked what the point of the whole thing was; it’s not like we were ever going to get jobs as sentence diagrammers.

Upon hearing this question (for what, I’m sure, was at least the 500th time in her long career), Ms. Perry turned around from the chalk board at the front of the classroom. She pushed her red-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose and glanced at the ceiling for a moment. Which became another moment. And another.

Then she shrugged and set a piece of chalk on the battered, wooden podium to her left. “No, you won’t do this in a job, but you will write as a part of your jobs and just as part of your lives. Practicing sentence diagramming helps you understand how language does and does not work.”

Before the inquisitor could follow up, Ms. Perry turned back around to study the trio of diagrammed sentences on the chalk board. “And if you don’t understand the rules of grammar, you won’t know when or how to break them, and you’ll never be able to write anything interesting at all.”

Why the Rules of Language Matter

Grammar is a bit like stop lights and traffic signs. Every road post or yellow light we encounter is part of a larger system that keeps drivers (mostly) organized on the streets or highways we have to share with one another.

Likewise, grammar is the system that keeps language (fairly) organized and allows us to understand the meaning of words and word groups. Every component of grammar—punctuation, syntax, semantics, and so on—enables the reliable processing and production of communication.

You might know several or even dozens of words in foreign languages, but if you don’t understand the grammatical rules of French or Russian or Mandarin, you’re going to have a difficult time consistently understanding meaning, let alone the nuances of language.

For that reason—i.e., achieving reliable comprehension—grammar is a critical component of learning and communicating via the written word. Being able to use commas correctly or recognizing when a sentence would benefit from a clarifying, dependent clause helps you craft readable, effective writing.

Mastery over grammar and its various elements also helps you sound polished and credible. We tend to judge people based on how they speak and how they write. If they have clear, understandable writing, we’re more likely to see them as someone whose ideas are worth listening to and incorporating into our lives.

When to Treat the Rules More Like Guidelines

In formal writing situations such as academic essays or business proposals, following the rules of language will convey your professionalism and education on a subject. As such, I recommend adhering to the conventional and generally accepted rules of grammar in those instances.

However, most of the content we consume on a daily basis exists on social media, websites, or in other less formal situations. (Not to mention the books or short stories we read.) Should the rules of grammar apply in those circumstances too?

Sometimes, yes. Other times, no.

Manipulating or ignoring the rules of grammar can make for much more interesting copy or text. And when the primary goal is to engage readers rather than convey educated professionalism, bending or breaking the rules is a perfectly viable strategy.

Could that diminish the demonstration of expertise and credibility? Unlikely, not if you prioritize upholding the fundamental purpose of grammatical rules in the first place—which is to ensure the intended meaning of a communication is clear.

Cool. What Areas of Grammar Can I Play Around With?

Two areas you can experiment with in terms of breaking or bending grammatical rules are: sentence types and punctuation.

Formal writing usually requires complete sentences, i.e., at least one independent clause that contains a subject + predicate. Sentence fragments are frowned upon as are sentences that begin with conjunctions such as “but.”

In less formal writing, however, I think experimenting with types of sentences is perfectly fine. In fact, sentence fragments can be quite powerful and effective. Especially when you want to emphasize a particular point.

Likewise, formal writing generally relies on the proper deployment of periods, commas, semi-colons, en dashes, and so on. For good reason too. Punctuation tells readers when to stop or slow down, just as it signals the priority or relevance of information.

Still, experimenting with punctuation can produce interesting copy or text, and a missing period might actually be more effective in informal writing. As such, decide what impact you want a segment of writing to have and adjust your sentence types or punctuation accordingly.

Is there an Area of Grammar Where I Shouldn’t go Too Wild?

One area you should generally follow the rules is syntax, which is how we order and arrange words and phrases in groups. Syntax includes word choices, subject-verb agreements, pronoun-antecedent agreements, and the sequencing order of sentence elements. More specifically:

  1. Make Clear Word Choices. While language is constantly evolving and the meaning of words change over time (“awful” didn’t always mean bad), I recommend employing words as they are generally meant to be understood at the time. In other words, don’t suddenly decide you really want “decade” to mean something other than a measurement of 10 years.
  2. Ensure Clear Agreements with Word Pairings. Readers will have a hard time following your ideas if they don’t know who’s doing what. As such, make sure you have clear subject-verb pairings and that the two are in agreement with one another. (“She runs today.” instead of “She run today.”) Also ensure your pronouns and antecedents are in agreement. (“They’re going to their favorite store.” instead of “Each person is going to their favorite store.”)
  3. Follow Accepted Sequencing. The English language usually has a “subject + verb + object” sequence (“I handed her the letter”) for sentences, even when we introduce dependent clauses. English also has preferred sequencing for adjectives and adverbs, and rearranging that can result in confusion. (For example, we expect to see “six large green chairs,” but “green six large chairs” would be a problem.)

Now, the rules of syntax certainly can be experimented with (as many amusing Tweets or social media posts have demonstrated), but I recommend exercising far greater caution when doing so.

A Final Observation About the Rules of Language

One last thing I’ll mention is that not everyone has the same experience or education when it comes to learning or practicing the rules of language. As a general reminder, I caution against outright dismissing someone’s ideas because her or she doesn’t use punctuation precisely.

Is it okay to be skeptical about professionalism or expertise if a business’s website is riddled with grammatical errors? Sure. Should we dismiss someone’s potential or observations because he or she can’t use semi-colons correctly? I don’t think so.

For all we know, the person could speak English as a second language or didn’t have the same educational opportunities we did. Their lack of grammatical mastery doesn’t necessarily mean they lack intelligence or insight.

So. While the rules of language are useful and even necessary, they should always be employed to improve or facilitate communication. They should never be used as a gate-keeping tool to decide whose ideas matter and whose don’t.

More to Come!

Join me again later this week as we explore more about the practices and strategies of good writing. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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