How important is Grammar?
There's a conversation going on on Crimespace about pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying "I could care less" when they mean "I couldn't care less." But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I'll back off of that... simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That's what I work on.

If a story starts:

"Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road."

I am not going to sit there and help fix the "me and you" and the correct "your" first. I'm going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head's spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write "Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda."

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it's easy to fix. You can--when you edit someone's piece--say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it's easier than saying, but there's a plot hole here on page 202 and I don't know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I'm always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I'm always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

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Getting across meaning is too important to dismiss as a creative pursuit to be put aside so that grammar takes precedence. In schools, in business, in life, a proper sentence structured to perfection with every comma in place *still* isn't a guarantee that what is being said is what is being read. And in today's world, I think it is far more important to ensure that meaning comes across loud, and especially clear. E-mails and the internet are but one example of why meaning is so important. Who hasn't pressed Send, after proofing an e-mail, knowing your grammar is perfect, only to discover that what you wrote, your intention, was not how the e-mail was read?

I don't think anyone here on the other side of the grammar argument is saying that teaching grammar isn't important. But teaching the importance of meaning is as important, if not more so. If teachers are forced to choose between the two, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. I like that Dave is thinking about the two. I like that he stresses over the importance of one over the other. I like to think that there are more teachers like him, thinking creatively on what is best for the students, not what is dictated. And if letting students become interested in the importance of meaning gets them more interested in grammar and what its proper use can do to the power of the written word, isn't that what it is all about?
I agree in theory too.

However, I think a writer who breaks the rules of grammar should KNOW he is breaking those rules, and should know WHY he's breaking them.

I work as the editor and publisher of two newspapers. We emphasize proper grammar to assist with clarity in communication. Same goes with AP Style.

Currently, I'm in the process of hiring a reporter. Most applicants are graduating in May with journalism degrees. Three cover letters had what I'd call fairly serious mistakes in grammar. They did not get a phone call. We also require a writing test. So far, I've given it to nine applicants. Three were thrown out because of fairly basic grammar screw ups.

I do have an experienced reporter who, in her features, will occasionally break a grammar rule. But when she does, she knows she's broken it and can explain to me why it needs to be broken.

Additionally, I worked at a national consumer magazine for better than a year. My job was to go through queries. Absolute rule number one was to reject any query with spelling or grammar errors.

Story, context, meaning, etc. are all critically important. But so is grammar.
I've been teaching English at the college level for the past 13 years, and I pretty much grade students on content and form (grammar) equally. The two are so intertwined that I don't think they can be separated. The difference between "Let's eat grandma!" and "Let's eat, grandma!" is pretty big. Is this a grammar issue or a meaning question? Both, I'd say.

I do start off each semester by telling my writing students by telling them to forget anything they might have heard about writing being about self-expression. It is about communicating ideas to others. The rest of the real world works this way as well. If a cover letter or slush pile story starts off with a grammatical error, it'll most likely be tossed aside.

On the other hand, 8th grade is not the real world - not yet. They're preparing for the real world, and they continue to prepare in the ninth grade, the tenth, etc. Then many of them pay to take several semesters of developmental English and they're ready for my class...

I will say that I think the best way to learn grammar is by extensive practice in reading and writing.
I'm of the opinion that grammar is a vehicle for meaning. Much as we'd like to separate meaning from grammar, bad grammar can obscure meaning. I agree that grammar should be taught early and advanced writing classes shouldn't have to cover it, but the fact is there are college kids who can't make coherent sentences. Do we just say, "They are too old, too old to begin the training?"

Writers need structure at any level, creative or non-creative. That's why THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is recommended reading in many classes besides English where essays are required. That's why I've kept my college dictionary and my copy of ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser.
the fact is there are college kids who can't make coherent sentences

I get a lot of these. They're certainly not too old to learn, but I think it takes a lot more effort by the time they're in my class. In a college level comp class, I probably spend about two full class periods on basic sentence structure and how to avoid or fix run ons and fragments. Class periods being 80 minutes long, this is a full week wasted on grammar school level stuff.

Dave is right to say, however, that many troubles can be avoided by simply reading your paper aloud slowly and carefully. Interestingly, one student this past week handed in five papers (all late of course). He mispelled his own name on three of them.
>The difference between "Let's eat grandma!" and "Let's eat, grandma!" is pretty big.

Especially to grandma.
Isn't good grammer a part of the whole package? I like to write on the fly, then I worry about the bones later. Good grammer is part of the bones of any piece, as well as proper spelling. The spontenaity of your story in the first draft or two is what captures your reader. That hearfelt honesty is what they want the most. Grammer, construction and spelling are the foundation that should be subliminally THERE, supporting it and giving the story and the reader a sound, secure footing; but never in your face or noticible. If your platform is shaky then it is impossible to relax and enjoy the experience.

I think we can test those limits in this genre more than others. Crime/Mystery/Thrillers need to personality based and action driven. To make a setting real, especially in stories made up of enormous amounts of dialogue, grammer has to be sacrificed alot. I don't speak using perfect grammer. And neither should my characters. The written words should reflect them, not an English Prof...unless the character IS an English Prof! And that goes for books written in first person. The voice must be true. But the reader must sense the solidness of a piece. I HATE reading a book that is horribly put together; I lay it down quickly and never return. It's a challenge, trying to make something sing, but also making the bones an unobtrusive support.
I don't speak using perfect grammer. And neither should my characters. The written words should reflect them...

I think it's safe to define grammar as a person's speech pattern/use of language, which of course changes to fit the situation and audience. In this sense, without a grammar, people couldn't communicate at all.
Are we talking apples and oranges? I think Dave is right when it comes to teaching--work on meaning, encourage creativity. But with professional writers, I think grammar jumps in importance. For one thing, bad grammar will get you tossed from many agent's TBR pile very quickly. We're expected to know the rules.
I understand the distinction you're making, but if you consider that writing/comprehension skills are bound to affect anyone's income some way or another, it's important for everyone to learn grammar. The main point here is that grammar is the most basic way to learn meaning. Once one has some idea how language is structured, it's easier to grasp the function and meaning of individual words.
I'm with Steven on this - I think they are equally important (by the way, I love the 'grandma' example!). I think that if you can't get your point across coherently then it doesn't matter how creative your story is because people just won't be able to read it. I don't mean the obvious ones that the reader can skim past, knowing what was meant. I mean those WTF? moments that pull you up short. And Dave I agree that reading sentences aloud can fix a multitude of sins. It should form part of a school curriculum :o)
You know what I just realized? That I made a Grammatical Error in the title of my post, and at the same time, my point is still coming across... "How important IS grammar?"


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