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Why Grammar is Vital to Good Writing

Tessa Schlesinger has been a writer since birth. She was published early, is opinionated, and, in her 7th decade, still continues to write.

Grammar Matters


The Year Grammar Was Lost!

The year, 1969, was the last year that people in the USA, the UK, and South Africa graduated high school with a classical education. The classical education was outlawed because it was thought that it was relevant in the second half of the 20th century. After all, a classical education had been the norm for 400 years.

Educators thought that children would learn to spell automatically by reading, that they would learn grammar simply by hearing people speak, and that analysis and logic were simple calculations of the human brain, and therefore it was a waste of time to teach it. They thought it a much better use of time to spend time teaching children about life and increasing their self-esteem.

Teachers Often Tell Students Grammar and Spelling Don't Matter

Like many parents, I was horrified when my daughter came home from school and told me that her teacher had said that spelling and grammar didn’t matter ‘as long as she could be understood.

I heard this piece of erroneous advice muttered on three continents - in South Africa from her grade school teachers, in the UK by her senior school college, and by several professors in American colleges.

It's no wonder that some research in California, about 10 years back, said that 95% of students at 4-year colleges couldn't write a grammatical sentence.

The problem is that grammar is what makes the written word understood. Without grammar, the reader is not picking up what the writer is saying. For instance, "I didn't do nothing." Is the person saying that they didn't do anything or that they did something. There is no double negative in English.

Take the most common example given to demonstrate just how powerfully grammar affects how our words are read.

"I ate, Grandma."

"I ate Grandma."

That comma differentiates between the speaking eating his grandmother and telling his grandmother that he had already eaten.

Grammar is not to be scorned. It is a highly necessary component of good writing and good communication.

The Difference Between the Written and the Spoken Word

English is written entirely differently to the way it is spoken. When language is spoken, there is the tone, the expression on the face, the pauses, the body language, and more. These components clarify what is being said. Have you ever read something on the web, commented on it, and then found the writer explaining that he was being sarcastic? Many clues to meaning that are obvious in the spoken word are missing form the written word.

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Now consider the fact that even when we speak to each other, we frequently misunderstand what the other has said. If that happens when there are so many visual clues when we speak to each other, how much more misunderstanding can there be when there aren't any?

When you are speaking, you often pause to indicate that a particular thought is complete. If you didn’t pause, and you continued with your sentence without that pause, very soon people wouldn’t understand what you were saying. In the same way, pauses (and the length of the pause) would give meaning to your sentence.

Punctuation has a very definite set of rules. Each and every single one of them makes a difference to what is meant. When you are speaking, the length of that pause indicates what you mean. When you write, commas, semi-colons, periods, and colons tell the reader what you mean.

Run on sentences are two separate sentences which are not separated by a period. An example of a run one sentence would be “Writing on hubpages needs to be grammatical editors will not be pleased otherwise.” If you were speaking, you would pause between those two sentences. So when you are writing, you need to signal to the writer that there are two different thoughts there. In this case, you would insert a period to illustrate a pause, and you would start with a capital letter to indicate a new thought.

Most people today don't know the difference between you're and your, its and it's, we're and were, theirs and there's.

Most people today don't know the difference between you're and your, its and it's, we're and were, theirs and there's.

Grammar is Vital to Readers, Clients, and Bosses.

Do you know that bad grammar slows down fast readers?

That's because we don't actually read once we have learned to read during kindergarten. We actually recognise the words very quickly when we see them. The faster we recognise them, the faster we read. More importantly, the punctuation, capital letters, paragraphing, etc. all give us clues to what we are reading. When some of that is wrong, it often doesn't fit in with what was previously said. So we slow down to try to make sense of it.

It's also true that only about 5% of the world's population spend a great deal of their time reading. I read for about five hours ever day of my life. Sometimes I read through the night. I read at least five books a week, and during my school years, I was reading between two and four books a day.

If you're a writer, you want people who read a lot. And readers who read a lot won't read poor grammar. They've read enough books, periodicals, web content, etc. to expect good grammar. It makes their reading easier, and they will just move on to the next writer. After all, writers are not hard to find these days.

Consider that there have been court cases where business has lost money because the client understood one thing while the salesman meant another thing. The legal fraternity uses many words to ensure that the exact meaning is conveyed. Bad grammar and wrong spelling can cost a lot of money!

It's also fair to say that if you write a letter to an email or a client, and your grammar is not acceptable, it may cost you the client.

Grammar matters!

Ambiguity in a Sentence is a Killer!

One of the outcomes of a poorly constructed sentence is that the sentence can mean two or three things, and the reader does not know what the writer intended. This means that the reader rereads the piece that is puzzling, and if it still isn't clear, goes further back in the text to see if s/he missed something. If that does not provide clarity, then the reader reads ahead to see if there is an explanation. When the reader cannot clarify what is meant, then s/he frequently stops reading. This is disastrous to anyone wishing to earn a living from writing.

Note the following sentence.

“I saw a woman on the hill with a telescope.” This could mean that the speaker was sawing a women half on a hill, and the hill had a telescope. Or it could mean that an observer saw a woman on the hill, and the hill had a telescope. Alternatively, it could mean that the woman who was on the hill had a telescope.

How would you know, as a reader, what the writer meant?

The sentence needs to be written in such a way that it is not ambiguous.

If you were familiar with grammar, you would know that the phrase following the noun would be referring to the noun. So, technically speaking, the phrase ‘with a telescope’ would refer to the hill.

In addition, the word ‘saw’ has two meanings, so unless the meaning is explained through a descriptive phrase or clause, the reader could infer that the speaker either noticed the woman or sawed her in half. Context would be important here.

Readers who understand the rules of grammar make sense of sentences as a result of the order in which the words are written. Ambiguity would be avoided by using a word which only had one meaning, or by adding a phrase which gave clear meaning to the word used, or added further context to the situation.

My late father spoke eleven languages. He said that English was the most difficult to learn.

My late father spoke eleven languages. He said that English was the most difficult to learn.

Well-Spoken Peers and Parents Assist in Learning Grammar Effortlessly

Learning grammar in a second language is really tough. We all understand when we study second languages that the essence of saying something is also dependent on word order.

Sometimes we are not lucky enough to have two parents who speak English (our home language well). In my own case, I had an Afrikaans mother and a German father. While I did attend an English school, I also read many books from the age of about seven, and I picked up grammar from there.

If one has parents whose native language isn't English, or who speak poorly as a result of being in a particular social demographic, it becomes vital to both study and understand the grammatical rules. This is particularly so if one's job is going to involve communication.

The problem with not having a thorough understanding of grammar is that we cannot determine what the reader understands.

The problem with not having a thorough understanding of grammar is that we cannot determine what the reader understands.

The Best Way to Learn English Grammar is an ESL Course.

My generation learnt English grammar as a result of the study of Latin. In the same way, all English as Second Language (ESL) teach English Grammar better than any other primary English course. Six months spent learning the intricacies of good grammar will bring rich rewards to the writer.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Tessa Schlesinger


Tessa Schlesinger (author) on September 07, 2017:

You just made me laugh, S Maree. I reread it 30 minutes ago and spent 15 minutes rewriting because some things were badly expressed (word order and vocabulary choice! English is a hard taskmaster, indeed! :)

S Maree on September 07, 2017:

Thank you, Ms. Schlesinger!

I am reminded of Maria Von Trapp's description of her efforts to learn English. She wrote of the German "bekommen", which means to "get", being mistaken for the English "become". She also assumed roots would be "reets" because the plural of goose is geese. Reading her story proves how difficult it is to learn English.

Even upon writing this I am appalled at myself because I've forgotten many of the rules for using parentheses. The paragraph I just wrote is probably wrong, and I would appreciate if any kind soul would edit it.

Oh, Johnathan Swift would berate me! We need grammar! English seems better spoken and written by those who count it an adjunct to their native tongues. Back to school for me! Shame on the educators who discount the importance of grammar!


p.s. I speak even worse then I write. Is there hope for me?

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