Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does It Even Matter?

Today I want to address a fairly simple question with a not-so-straightforward answer. Why should we care at all about grammatical "correctness?" This post is dedicated to anyone who has ever thought grammar just seemed like one of those tools that over-bearing instructors use to harass unwitting students. Sure, many grammar rules seem trivial at best. For example, does it really matter if I end a sentence with a preposition? Do I really deserve a lower grade for inserting commas where (you say) they don't belong? By whose authority did knowing the difference between "that" and "which" become the standard for testing English competency? The short answer is both "no" and "yes." The most frustrating part for English speakers, both native and non-native alike, is that with no Academie Francaise (French) or Kultusministerium (German) to regulate spelling and grammar, the English language can truly seem like the wild frontier. Time to bring out your dueling pistols.

Instead of worrying about the business of right and wrong, let's think about grammar as a puzzle. Some pieces fit in particular places better than others. But the great part about language is that it is combinative, meaning that the puzzle can be put together many different ways. Particular pieces or words do not always have to go in certain spots. You can start a sentence with a noun, an adverb, or even a twenty-word phrase if you want. By moving things around, you can add emphasis, change direction, or even hide something.

In terms of "right" and "wrong," the most important factor to consider is audience. When you are chatting with friends or family, it matters very little whether you say "who" or "whom" in the appropriate places. They will understand you regardless and are probably more focused on the content of your speech rather than how you say it. In fact, there are some instances where using the grammatically correct word, like "whom," may draw unwanted attention. Your family might think you are trying to talk down to them or, even worse, making fun of them.

Grammar is a puzzle in two ways. You have to string together the words in a way that makes sense logically. But these words and phrases also need to be appropriate for your audience. Slang, contractions, and ungrammatical phrases are great for communicating with friends but not so great at a job interview (unless the job is working for your best friend--if that's the case you probably won't be sitting in a formal interview anyway). Audience awareness is almost just as important as grammar knowledge. In fact, the identity of your audience can even change the grammar rules you will use.

So, does it matter if you end your sentences with a preposition? The short answer is yes, if your audience cares. No, if your audience doesn't. See y'all at the OK Corral.

Brady Spangenberg


Mark Pennington said...

I like your puzzle analogy. I have a nice diagnostic grammar assessment that is whole class multiple choice. http://penningtonpublishing.com/assessments.php

Anonymous said...

You know that we divide English into two types: spoken and written English. The spoken English is made up of many indivisible units that are named “phonemes”. Like that, the written English is made up of units that are termed as “graphemes”. My question is that what is the word that can be used as the name for both “phoneme” and “grapheme”? For example people are either men or women. Both man and woman are named “human kind”. We can say “human is either man or woman” or “either female or male”. The word “human” is a name for both of them. What is the word that can be a name for both phoneme and grapheme?
Please write your question. I will come back and visit your blog again.

Brady Spangenberg said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for the kudos. It's nice to hear from like-minded people who are tying to implement practical grammar instruction. Are your assessments available for general use in classrooms? I'm thinking of using them to give my literature students a challenge.


Mary Fannington said...

Hi Brady,

There was a report lately on USNews http://www.usnews.com/articles/business/careers/2008/08/13/does-grammar-really-matter-anymore.html
on almost the same topic.
Seems like you're not alone.
A rather lazy way to do it, is by using an electronic writing assistant like http://www.grammarsoftware.com which I personally find quite useful for proofreading.

Mary Fannington

Brady Spangenberg said...

Hi Mary,

Thanks so much for the newspaper link. It was a very interesting and reassuring article. I think those who blame technology are missing the counterpoint. Yes, technology makes it easier to bend the rules, but technology also makes it easier for us to follow the rules. I can't remember where I heard this first (maybe SportsCenter), but a good craftsman never blames his tools.


Deborah said...

Hi - your readers may be interested in my blog which is all about grammar, punctuation and writing well.


Everyone welcome!