Posted by on August 1, 2018

The Down and Dirty Truth About Grammar

Open Books. Credit: Patrick Tomasso.Split infinitives. Comma splices. Passive voice. These phrases are enough to strike fear into anyone traumatized by gruff and authoritarian English teachers. I still break into a cold sweat at the sight of red ink even though I’m now the one striking bad verb agreements and misplaced semi-colons.

Grammar is intimidating for many of us. But what we often call grammar is nothing more than a set of ever-changing preferences. Kory Stamper says it best in her book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries when she writes, “The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.”

Commas make a good example. I err on the side of caution; I’m liberal with my use of commas—a writing trait I have, at times, been taken to task for. But comma placement is more subjective than most of us think, despite what Oxford comma or AP Style fundamentalists would have you believe.

What is grammar?

You would think we could agree on what grammar is even if we can’t agree on what could be considered correct grammar, but we can’t. To some, grammar refers primarily to punctuation and syntax. To others, grammar refers to the whole system of language, including punctuation, syntax, morphology, phonology, pragmatics, and semantics. And still others don’t consider punctuation or spelling as components of grammar at all. (I’m sure there are linguists out there more than willing to throw a few punches in this fight.)

Merriam-Webster defines grammar as “(1a) the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence,” and as “(2b) a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language.”

That wasn’t very helpful, was it? To add insult to injury, there are numerous style and usage guides with their own take on grammar and proper usage. I can name the following guides just off the top of my head: AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook, APA Style, and New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. 

The existence of several style guides and conflicting books about grammar does not instill confidence in an absolute grammatical truth, does it?

So what are you to do?

The key is consistency. If you use the Oxford comma, then avoid flipping back and forth between the Oxford comma and AP Style. This goes for spelling as well; if you hyphenate book-lover in one article, avoid writing it as book lover in another.

If you are producing academic or professional work, defer to industry standards or conventions if for no other reason than not making your life more difficult. And if there are no set industry standards, again, be consistent.

When producing creative work, don’t worry too much about having the “correct” grammar. It will usually be more important for you to write naturally instead of trying to impose dubious rules and trying to please the memory of your high school English teacher. There is one caveat, however. If you have a distinct style, be prepared for criticism. You don’t have to accept it, and you don’t have to defend yourself, but know there will be a grammarian (or two or three) who will relish railing against your non-conforming grammatical style.

In creative writing circles, you often hear the expression, “You learn the rules so you to break them.” But this implies there are hard and fast grammar rules that can be broken, and there simply aren’t. Well, there is a small set of rules we all basically agree on (e.g., verb placement or how to use a period), but grammar is, in the words of Doctor Who, “more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… stuff.”

But the real down and dirty truth about grammar is this: writing well is rarely about grammatical perfection.

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