I’m running a course on sharpening writing skills for the Henshall Centre today and one of the things we’re talking about is grammar. I’ve had a number of discussions on the subject on Facebook and elsewhere – does it matter whether something you write is 100% grammatical, does anyone care any more?
My answer is that although language evolves, grammar ultimately matters a great deal because it leads to clarity.
The flipside of this is that if a grammatical rule doesn’t add anything to clarity, it’s probably not useful any longer. Take one of my favourites, the split infinitive. Many people condemn this and insist it shouldn’t happen. Well, phooey to that. The original rule about not splitting infinitives came from latin, is arcane and elderly and has nothing to do with making statements clear or otherwise.
There are also regional variants. The American “I could care less” means the same as the British “I couldn’t care less” – both are correct in the right geography but there’s room for confusion.
Clarity is everything
However, there are areas in which clarity has to count for something and picking something someone has said apart to find out what they meant can take too long. It’s almost 20 years since I bought my current house, and some of the correspondence I had with the mortgage company still baffles me. It didn’t even have jargon in it (another major issue with some writing), just an attempt at sounding official by a junior who probably shouldn’t have bothered.
So I’m going to be advising sensible grammar when it aids comprehension. Short sentences. Easy words. I’m not all that worried about whether every sentence contains a verb (the previous two in this paragraph didn’t), nor whether people start a sentence with a conjunction. But poor grammar that actively distorts meaning, as some of it does, is something to watch for.
What’s everybody else think?