Many people get uptight when they write. They worry too much on whether their grammar is right or not. Is it correct “enough”? Is it wrong? How will it appear to the reader? Should I change the verb tense from present to past, and when? After all, everything that’s happening now is flowing into the past. So, it must be past tense. It sounds absurd, yet it happens.
Some writers spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing what they wrote. Analysis paralysis sets in. But if you’re a native speaker, just how badly can you mangle what you fluently know how to do? Perhaps the problems are not so much with the rules, but the people who want to impose those rules on speakers and writers.
And who’s to judge another person’s grammar anyway?
First, we have to define what grammar is. I’ve found many definitions, which leads me to think there isn’t a clear consensus on what grammar is and makes it subjective. To avoid over-complicating the issue, I’ll use a simple description that I believe all would agree with.
Grammar: A collection of rules to create a language.
Barring arguments over which came first, the chicken or the egg, and how our language evolved without rules to begin with, I’m curious under what criteria these rules were created.
Are grammar rules global? Obviously not. Languages differ in syntax (word order), for one. That alone negates grammar rules as being universal. Does it depend on the language? Let’s take English for example. Why are there different rules for different dialects of the same language?
The other side of the pond
Brits use different words than Americans do: (car) boot instead of trunk, pissed instead of drunk, grey instead of gray, honour instead or honor, and so on. Sure, it’s a different culture; however, it’s still English. Furthermore, Americans may ask why Brits commonly leave out articles: ‘When is he going to hospital’? So, would it proper that American teachers mark a student’s sentence wrong in this case? Or, “I must go see the chemist” (pharmacist). Think what that might do to a student in America.
Americans aren’t too sure of their our own language to begin with. What do we do with that “that” thing? “He assumed [that] it wasn’t important.” Is “that” obligatory, or not? And are we to chastise the soldier for not using the prescribed [Noun + Verb] structure as he shouts “Look out!” to his comrades as a grenade lands nearby?
Does anyone really study this stuff?
Yes, and people teach it.
But since we know how to speak our language fluently, what is being taught exactly? Just theory behind the structure of speech that we already use. Although we know how to inflect verbs, we’re taught the three grammatically bound forms anyway. And if you were to bring up the verb tenses and their progressive forms to someone, you might get the response, “Who cares?”.
We mangle our speech when we speak. Why is that okay?
Why do grammar rules seem to get lost when we speak? Why isn’t there such an uproar when we carry on everyday conversations and use idiomatic or metaphorical phrases every third or fourth sentence? Because. It’s simply easier to speak naturally when not hindered by grammar rules.
We get sloppy in our speech. We screw up. We slip up. Among native speakers, listeners hear our mistakes, understand, then we go on uncorrected with our conversations as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred. We speak, they listen, and that’s it. Few people care about grammar rules when speaking.
When we write, the rules of language are stricter. Readers are now the critics, and not the grammarian pundits. Blatant errors distract and turn people off to the content: bad use of apostrophes, poor formatting, sloppy punctuation, inexcusable spelling errors and misuse of words (such as): capitol/al, principle/al, stationary/ery, affect/effect, and so on. Misusing coordinate conjunctions, comma splices, and fused sentences upsets the reader’s cadence and thus diverts their attention–at least to those that can tell the difference.
Do writers even care?
A while back I wrote a book on punctuation and mechanics: apostrophes when they’re used with singular & plural possessive pronouns, regular/irregular plural nouns, and proper nouns, comma splices and run on sentences. This is basic English 066 stuff, mind you. After the fact, I realized that there are competent writers and then there are those that don’t care or don’t even try.
A trend that I’ve seen is misspelled and run on words. Even though the content is good and the writer seems proficient enough, it’s as if the writer didn’t take time to use a spell checker before publication. It could be that a spell check program wasn’t included with their office software (hardly), or that the writer just didn’t care. Whatever. As more mistakes occur, the more intolerant the reader becomes towards those mistakes and tends to find less credibility in what the writer has to say.
Too many people want to be the grammar police, yet not criticize sloppy, basic mistakes that so many writers do today. Forget the split infinitives, dangling or misplaced modifiers, or the grammar analyses of semantic, syntactic, and morphological issues. Just make it readable.