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Why Do We Care About Grammar?

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As a precursor, I have written this article using proper grammar -- not because I believe that it makes it any of my points more valid or more forceful, but because if it were written using poor grammar, no one would take it as seriously, as people would have preconceived notions about the value of its contents.

Grammar is a given in the lives of most students in the American education system today. Since I first entered this K-12 system, I've been instructed countless times of the difference between "its" and "it's," that prepositions must never go at the end of a sentence and how there are correct and incorrect ways to spell or pronounce a certain word. I took it for granted that grammar rules were definite and could never be broken, and I thought that it was my responsibility to mold to their demands. This year in my AP Language and Composition class, however, my perspective changed when my teacher, Mr. Hanford, assigned us an end-of-the-year book project. Out of the options provided, I chose to read The Lexicographer's Dilemma, by Jack Lynch, where I learned about the history of the English language and began to question those very rules that I had abided by for so long.

Why do we care about grammar to the extent that we do? Of course, it can be valuable in some contexts in order to guarantee clarity and bring a level of order and elegance into the language. But beyond those basic rules, why does it matter? What difference is there between "to write furiously" and "to furiously write"? People would understand the meaning regardless, even though the latter contains the dreaded split infinitive. Hundreds of years ago, individuals did not even know, much less care, about these minor conventions, but nowadays, people immediately pounce on the slightest grammar infraction, no matter how inconsequential. As Lynch astutely notes, however, there is no reason why proper grammar should be valued so highly, as phrases such as "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" are virtually nonsense but break no grammatical rules, while "I ain't got nothing" is one of the most hated phrases in English, even though it is perfectly comprehensible and invokes a sense of personality and style that most other phrases remain unable to do.

Nevertheless, many people still believe that straying from the standard forms of English will lead to an unacceptable butchering of the language, convinced that bad grammar is an indicator of bad writing. This belief, however, is no truer that stating that good grammar indicates good writing. Shakespeare broke almost every English rule imaginable, but almost no one would even dare hint that Shakespeare's writing was subpar. Grammar is there simply to aid comprehension, as a way for us to ensure that we can understand each other both in speech and in print. If we can understand each other without it, it becomes unnecessary.

Some individuals persist in their defense of perfect grammar, arguing that if we allow minor rules to be broken, that will lead us down a path to break larger, more important rules that will eventually render the English language unintelligible. Yet English has been changing for hundreds of years, evolving from Old English to Middle English to the more recognizable Modern English that we utilize today; throughout all this time, it has remained perfectly understandable, and it will almost certainly continue that way far into the future.

I'm not advocating abolishing the idea of grammar altogether, nor am I saying that those who abide by grammar rules are misguided or foolish. Rather, people need to realize that grammar itself is there for the sole purpose of clarity and that it has no value outside of what it attempts to convey. It should not be a concrete set of rules that are do-or-die. After all, it is not the grammar that is important in the end -- it is the content being expressed that truly matters. As time goes on, language will inevitably shift continuously, but as Lynch says:

... so what? The language won't be any poorer for [changes in grammar]. It's not a corruption of proper English, but an evolution. It doesn't demand a rearguard action to stave off the attackers; it doesn't call for guardians of the language to rush to the barricades. In fact English doesn't need protection. It's been doing remarkably well over the last fifteen hundred years, and is likely to outlive us all.