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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By the way, guys, thanks for a stirring and interesting discussion.
Dave - As a former teacher and administrator, I get the idea of what you're saying and to a point I agree. But the suggestion that teaching kids to think creatively is more important than grammar isn't going to apply to most kids. If they want to be writers, then I agree with you - grammar becomes subserviant to formulating and creating ideas.

But if a kid has designs on a career in most other fields, the grammar will serve them better. Sales people, customer service reps, accountants, researchers, etc - it's much more important for them to be well spoken and well written than it is for them to be "creative" in terms of their career.

My wife is a regional HR director for the country's largest homebuilder - about 50% of her job is hiring. Her first screening hurdle is how well the resume is written and how well spoken they are on the phone because as potential representatives for their company, they'll be speaking to customers and providing reports to supervisors, analysts, etc. People regularly lose the opportunity to simply interview because of poor grammar.

So again - while I agree with you as your idea applies to writers, I don't think it works from a universal standpoint.

(And if this argument has already been tossed forth, I apologize - my daughter is sitting on my lap asking me to do her hair and I didn't have time to read all the comments - and commenting was a way to avoid doing braids:)
Grammar counts in creative writing too, Jeff. Especially for those of us who do it professionally. I emailed an editor friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) on the subject, and s/he had this to say:

"I think I can ignore a few things, but if someone consistently sounds ignorant, and it's not the style of the person speaking, then I just toss it aside….

"It's a courtesy thing. If you can't be bothered to learn craft--and that includes grammar--I can't be bothered to read through your book.

"I have had a number of authors who supposedly worked in professions like P.R. and marketing, where someone should be able to draft a decent sentence, send in just typo-ridden, grammar-pathetic books, and it's galling that someone thinks it's ready and would waste my time. And I can think of a half dozen editor pals off the top of my head who feel the same way. Yes, it's easy for someone to fixate on grammar because it's obvious--but, if it's obvious, then fix it."

So, along with your argument, Jeff, it seems pretty obvious that everyone needs to learn grammar.
I'm pretty sure this is correct, but I'm beginning to think I'm talking about steps of learning. Simple grammar first, then writing for meaning, and then refining that meaning into correct grammar. My students are in a transition period... some need to focus on meaning and some are in the area where they can revise and refine their grammar skills. As I've analyzed my teaching this week after this conversation, I think I've noticed that it's more and more subconcious... that I teach more grammar than I think I do. I know I've focused a lot on the correct way to write dialogue this year.

Again, as a creative writer, I don't work on formal grammar rules. I write a close third person or first person a lot and I write on how it sounds to the ear or the reading ear. I'm not sure if perfect grammar is what I'm focusing on then. If a "Me and you went to the store" sounds right to me in dialogue or narration, I'll use it.-
"If a "Me and you went to the store" sounds right to me in dialogue or narration, I'll use it."

Totally agree with you on that - I had several struggles with copy editors over issues like that on my first two books. If it sounds right in the context of the writing, I use it, regardless of whether or not it's grammatically correct.
Of course, we break grammar rules all the time in fiction. But there's a big difference between stylistic usage (poetic license, if you will) and just not having a clue. I can spot a literary ignoramus on page one, and so can any editor. The book might be the next DaVinci Code, but unfortunately it will never be read. Nobody in the literary world has time for fixer-uppers anymore.
Jude, yes, you make good points. I hope I've made it clear that in my class I do not ignore grammar, I just try to teach it at the write time. And I understand you're coming at this as a writer.
Good for you, Dave. I hope your students are absorbing it. I have a fourteen-year-old who's a math wiz but hates to read books and hates to write, so I know it can be a struggle with some of the kids.
ha... at the "write" time. I'm such a cut up.
I can spot a literary ignoramus on page one, and so can any editor. The book might be the next DaVinci Code, but unfortunately it will never be read.

One of the most important lessons is that writing/speech doesn't exist in a vacuum. A writer/speaker can insist on his own use of language, but if some or all of his message doesn't reach readers because of the way it's phrased, his assertion of personality is pointless.

Similarly, there is no "perfect grammar" that exists independent of context. Writers can only strive for the "best" ways to deliver messages given the situation, setting, etc.
Right, Gerald. We don't want our private eye novels to read like biology textbooks, and vice versa. The Road, with its goofy punctuation, won the Pulitzer this year, but I'm pretty sure Cormac McCarthy was quite aware of every rule he broke.

Ever read any essays by Raymond Chandler? Very scholarly. It's hard to believe they're from the same writer who gave us the Philip Marlowe novels. Chandler had an exquisite command of language and voice, something all professional writers should strive for.
Why does everyone have a problem with my Granma?


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