I’m not sure Bill Walsh’s Lapsing Into a Comma quite fits into the literature theme of the blog, but I just finished it, so I thought I’d discuss grammar today. Mr. Walsh is a self-proclaimed curmudgeon about grammar (though he is quick to point out he isn’t a purist, and made a good case that there’s a difference between the two). At one time, I could relate to the feeling of curmudgeonly-ness. (The current lack of curmudgeonly-ness is best exemplified by my use of the non-word “curmudgeonly-ness.”) Grammar was once my biggest focus when writing and–much worse for my popularity–reading. I suspect that’s because I had less confidence in what I had to say, so I concentrated more on how I said it. A part of me also probably wanted to take others down a peg, I’m ashamed to say. Nit-picking about grammar was my way to compensate for feeling inferior. It’s funny…I knew a lot less about grammar then than I do now, but in the last few years I’ve completely relaxed. I think there are several reasons for this.
First, I had a conversation with the manfriend,* who claimed that grammar nit-pickiness was just another way for people to announce their class or status. Once upon a time, velvet and feathers were the means by which one could proclaim superiority. Now, we need other ways to do that. Proper grammar use displays education and social grace (according to the manfriend). People with bad grammar skills seem, well, poor. People with good grammar skills probably also know on which side of the plate the salad fork should be placed. I disagreed and fought the whole way through the conversation, but it certainly got me thinking.
Second, I decided at some point that writing was not about elegance, perfection, or complexity of sentence structure–it was about communicating ideas. When I realized this, grammar’s purpose changed in my mind. It facilitates communication. It isn’t there to show everyone how proper I am.
Third, I read a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Trusse, and, for the first time, I realized how often grammar is about taste, not about hard, fast rules. I don’t actually think that’s the lesson Trusse wanted me to get from the book, but whatever. Before, I figured that every grammar question had an exact right answer. It was just a question of whether or not I knew it. But, honestly, some things are just about choice. Comma use, especially, is often a matter of the writer’s discretion. For instance, I’m pretty sure I could have omitted the commas after “use” and after “especially” in that last sentence, and it would still be grammatically correct–some would argue that “especially” is a parenthetical element, some wouldn’t. (But, man, do I love commas. So I didn’t.)
Fourth, tutoring really helped me gain perspective on what purpose grammar should serve. Looking at peer essays showed me that grammar nit-picking should be low on the priority list. When grammar mistakes put a giant roadblock between the reader and the author, they must be addressed. But, though a mixed up “it’s” and “its” is a pet peeve of just about everyone who knows the difference, the writer’s meaning is not rendered completely inaccessible because of this error. Dwelling on pedantic grammatical issues should be the absolute FINAL stage of the writing process. It just isn’t as big a deal as making sure your arguments are coherent and understandable.
In the end, I think grammar serves two functions. The first I already described; it facilitates communication. Good use of grammar use makes things easier to read and understand. The second function is this: grammar is a communication in itself. It tells the reader how to interpret the piece and how seriously the author takes his or her writing. Out of respect for my teachers and respect for the work I produce, I try to make sure what I turn in is error-free. By doing this, I’m telling them, “I take my work seriously, and I bothered to read through this with a fine-toothed comb. I want it to be clear that I care.” When I get, say, an email from someone with a bunch of grammar errors now, I understand what that person is telling me: not “I’m an idiot,” but, “I’m not worried about impressing you at this point in our relationship, and I don’t have anything to prove.” That, of course, can be either endearing or offensive, depending on the situation. That probably isn’t the message you want to send to a future employer. So it isn’t as if I have demoted grammar, in my mind. It just serves a very different purpose than it used to to me.
*If you’re not sure what “manfriend” is, simply know that I think women who call men “boys” after they (or their male peers) turn 18 have issues.
Plus, I think the term “manfriend” is awesome.
**NOTE–To any person who draws my attention to a grammar problem in this post, see Murphry’s Law. And, also, I both thank you and hate you.