National Grammar Day is around the corner. But before you dust off your Elements of Style, post your pet peeves (there/their, anyone?), and get your red Sharpie ready to apply to error-ridden grocery store signs, consider this: you may not be celebrating the right thing.
On March 4 you’re sure to find an abundance of blog posts, tweets, and memes urging good grammar?and decrying the sad state of affairs when correct grammar becomes so unfamiliar that it looks more wrong than the real mistakes.
But a day celebrating grammar, the structural foundation of language, needs to be about more than just following the rules. In fact, it’s the perfect time to revisit why grammatical rules are important, and why they’re not the most important thing of all.
Making the Rules
Who makes the rules? We do?and I don’t mean “we” as in a secret team of editors bent on world domination through grammatical manipulation. In fact, you and I and every other person who combines words to convey meaning are the rule makers, the ones who define how future generations will write, speak, or use whatever communications technology or ability the future holds.
Through trial and error we figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s the best possible way to make sure the reader or listener understands what we’re telling them. Is the tone or style suited to our message? Is there a risk of confusion or distraction? Far from being a dusty set of laws, grammar rules and usage styles and conventions develop as naturally as the way our language is used each day.
Knowing the Rules
Make no mistake: knowing what the rules are is important if we want to avoid miscommunication on any level. Changing grammar and usage principles on a whim won’t lead to clear writing no matter how much we want it to happen.
But knowing the rules goes far beyond just making sure your subjects and verbs agree. Equally important is knowing what’s not a rule?the difference between rules and principles that make communication clear, and archaic notions that no longer make sense today (and perhaps never have). These lingering fake rules, like the idea that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, waste writers’ time, reduce readability, and may even lead to distorted meaning.
Breaking the Rules
Knowing the rules also gives you the freedom to break them deliberately where it’ll enhance the meaning of what you’re trying to say. No, “Sometimes.” isn’t a “proper” sentence, in the strict definition of the word, but this sentence fragment can be very effective in setting tone and mood in a more informal context.
It’s an awesome and terrifying responsibility to know that what we write today may change language forever. This March 4, refresh your own understanding of both the principles and the purpose of grammar?and get ready to create the language of the future.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.