Does Grammar Matter?

28 Sep

I’ve just finished reading a short volume that I picked up from my local bookshop. I Used to Know That: English by Patrick Scrivenor – can that name be real? – is one of those primers seeking to pilot us through the perilous waters of English grammar and correct usage. Every few years, I’ll submit to the guidance of such a book to test the continuing seaworthiness of my prose. I always find myself in disagreement on certain points with the authors of these guides. After all, writing style is a matter of preference and any book that sets out to lay down rules for it is bound to raise some objections. Nevertheless, the central tenet, that written English should conform to a logical structure, strikes me as a sensible one.

Navigating those choppy waters...

Navigating those choppy waters…

Does it matter if the sentences that you write are poorly constructed, perhaps riddled with clichés, malapropisms and spelling errors? Some would say not. It’s all about the ideas or the story. Those who object to substandard prose are pedants or ‘grammar Nazis’. Everyone has a novel in him and has the right to knock it out in a matter of weeks then press it upon the world. Only an elitist would deny him this right.

I would argue that this is mistaken. Without clarity and elegance, prose will neither inform nor appeal. Writing is a craft to be learned like any other and if you’re not prepared to put in the time you’ll never be any good at it (do you sense that I’m warming up for my annual NaNoWriMo tirade?). Generally speaking, crafting a properly constructed sentence comes as second nature to those who spend their time reading and writing. Rules are there to be broken, perhaps, but only by those who are aware that they are doing so.

Nona Rhino is back…

The process of composing fiction is often termed ‘creative writing’ and this offers us some clues. As a creative art, writing should aspire to an aesthetic. Poorly formed sentences are almost always ugly. And since writing is at the heart of the process, the writer has a duty of care. If you choose to call yourself a writer then the quality of your prose matters. No painter or sculptor worthy of the name would claim that the execution of his finished work was unimportant. Why should writing be any different?

Nobody’s prose is flawless. To err is human. A lack of concern for such mistakes smacks of complacency, though, and constitutes a literary own goal.

All text and images © PSR 2014


6 Responses to “Does Grammar Matter?”

  1. JHuw Evans September 28, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Your write?

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves September 29, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    Literally, Huw!!!

  3. Mari Biella September 29, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    I agree, Paul. Breaking rules is all well and good, as long as you know you’re doing so and are doing so for a reason. Careless, sloppy prose that’s riddled with grammatical and spelling errors is another matter altogether – even if the story is wonderful and the ideas intriguing, the end product will be almost impossible to read. Generally, a handful of mistakes don’t bother me but, as you say, we should never become complacent…

    • Paul Sutton Reeves September 29, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

      Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

      I should say that most of us make mistakes from time to time. The problem comes with writers who can’t be bothered to revise and correct their work or those who don’t know they’re making mistakes because they don’t read books.

  4. masgautsen September 29, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    People are free to call me pedantic or “grammar Nazi”, but reading a text full of spelling and gramatical errors that is not obviously put in there to knowingly break the rules (and sometimes even then) might be eough for me to put the text away. It will most likely be the only thing I remember about the text afterwards.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves September 29, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    Hi Maja and thanks for your comments.

    Poor prose certainly gets in the way of telling a tale and reminds the reader, unintentionally, of the artifice of the construct. Generally speaking, I only read writers who can turn a phrase and craft a proper sentence.

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