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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I took the crazy writing example from Lainey Bancroft's backblog, btw. It's also important to teach students proper attribution. ;)
I also think spelling is important, believe it or not.

I think ultimately my question is... what is more important?

What is said?


How it is said?
Ideally, everyone would instantly understand what everyone else meant, and that meaning would be the most important thing, However, because our reality has so much interference, how I say something is as important as what I say. In grade school, students are rewarded for getting their ideas across despite a few rough edges, but if the same flaws persist into adulthood, the same people risk being misinterpreted with more serious consequences.
They're equally important, IMO, Dave.

With good writing, style and meaning go hand-in-hand. Teach them the rules of grammar, then give them extraordinary things to read. Clarity of thought and good writing will follow, in most cases. Why not teach them to be good writers instead of just good enough to get by? The system has our kids for thirteen years if you count kindergarten. Thirteen friggin' years, and they can't learn grammar? To me, it's inexcusable to graduate a flock who has no clue how to use the very language they speak.
Well let me give you an example that happened to me this morning (since I was extremely conscious of it).... I am currently in the process of teaching students how to write research papers. I have students who have completely grasped what they are supposed to do and have been able to put together pretty good papers. The time I'm spending with them now is refining what they are saying and giving it some grammatical flair and style. We're just painting the fences.

But other students aren't getting it. They're not sure what they're saying or how to say it. What I'm working on them right now is to make sure they understand what they're saying. I'm leading them to much more simple papers, but they are understanding what a reasearch paper is for and how to basically write one.
I can appreciate your problem, Dave. By the time they get to you, they should already have some fairly stout writing skills. I'm sure you're doing the best you can.

In Florida, the kids have to start writing five-paragraph essays in third grade. Grammar counts. On the state exam, they're given a prompt and then have to write the essay in a set amount of time. If they don't pass the state exam, they don't pass third grade. Similar tests are given in higher grades. That might seem a little harsh, but it's probably what more states need to do to improve the students' writing skills and motivate the teachers to spend more time on it.
We have the same thing here in Jersey. But again, they are only supposed to mess around with grammar if it interferes with meaning... And don't get me started on the five paragraph "say what you'll say, say it, say what you said" essays... those are ridiculous formulas too, created by people with math backgrounds who don't want to think about the conent of writing. :-)
This is possibly the best comment I've seen all day.
Why all this fuss? If you are writer who believes that he/she has something important to say, surely you will take the trouble to say it not only correctly but as effectively as you can.

If you don't care about the form, then you also don't care about the book.

On the other hand, there are always copy-editors, so why worry if you don't care all that much?
With all due respect to my pal Dave White, he's simply wrong. Although grammar is not the be all and end all, it is what gives writing its structure. To claim that grammar is the least important aspect of writing is like claiming, as I used to do, that plot is irrelevant. The longer I'm at this profession, the clearer it is to me that those things we hated as children--vegetables, plot, and grammar--are crucial to good writing. Well, okay, maybe not the vegetables. Grammar and plot are the foundations upon which we build. I find particularly odd Dave's agrument about the philosophy of current testing standards. Current standards be damned. I think we expect way too little of students today, especially in terms of written expression. Admittedly, the people who taught my generation were a bit rules obsessed, but I will match my generation's ability to express itself in writing and in speech against the generations that have followed. This belief that you can simply discard the rules is silly. To break laws, especially stylistically, it is important to understand the rules you are breaking. When I break the rules of grammar--usually inside quotation marks--I do it intentionally for effect. How, may I ask, can a writer do this if he or she does not comprehend the intentions of the rules he or she is breaking? Is Dave's argument that this is somehow unimportant? If so, how can one develop a style? Is it all random? Is Dave claiming that because people break rules, the rules are unimportant? This "grammar is unimportant" thing is one of those theories that sounds good until you breakdown the reasoning behind it and the arguments for it. I do, however, believe Dave's point about stressing the development of meaning has great merit. I suppose my argument would be that I don't see learning the rules of grammar and the development of a coherent narrative as mutually exclusive.
Reed Farrel Coleman
I think, Reed, you make very good points--though I'm not "simply wrong." I think this is an area that is neither black nor white (and if I had said "neither black or white" you still would have understood me). I keep saying that basic grammar is important, but for the most part we learn basic grammar when we learn how to talk. In my line of work as a teacher, grammar is built last. We get the meaning down first. I tried to get the kids to write with perfect grammar and it just frustrated them. We maybe got through three sentences of a paragraph in 40 minutes. So I decided let them write first. When they are done, we see where they are. If something is unclear to me, I make them "fix," "change", "revise" that first. After that is clearer, then I can go back and fix little grammar mistakes, the "your/you'res," the "their/there/they'res," and punctuation.

In a perfect world this conversation would be moot. Grammar would be taught and by the time I get them students would know how to write perfect little sentences and I could work solely on meaning. However, the world is not perfect and I still insist, that while intertwined, meaning is more important than perfect grammar.


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