THE BLOG
10/19/2013 11:59 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2013

Why Grammar Is Important

Not long ago I was at my dentist's office getting my teeth cleaned. The hygienist, who has gone back to community college to further her education, had a grammar question for me that arose from a history class.

A great deal of the final grade depended on a research paper. She wanted the paper to be historically accurate and grammatically correct. She was not certain if a period at the end of a quotation should go before or after the ending quotation marks. She talked with her instructor about it. He also was uncertain. They discussed the matter for better than an hour. And here was the question: "Dr. Bradshaw, we decided that the period should go after the quotation marks. Were we right or wrong?" I had to tell her that they were incorrect: that in American English the period always goes before closing quotation marks.

Soon after my grammar book was released, I learned that a nearby school district purchased more than three hundred copies of my book. I went to the main office of the district to express my gratitude for the district's interest in my book. I was referred to the staff person responsible for high school curriculum development.

I had assumed the books were for the students, but learned that, instead, they were for faculty and non-teaching staff members. The curriculum development officer said her research led her to conclude that the typical high school student in the district was lacking in an adequate knowledge of correct grammar. After meeting with high school teachers for the purpose of developing enhancement classes that high school students could take to help them in understanding and using correct English, she concluded that faculty and staff members also needed a refresher course in English. It was for that purpose she ordered copies of my book: The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors.

But she went a step further. She asked me to development a ninety-minute presentation that could be used in continuing education programs for faculty members and training seminars for non-teaching staff members. In the last week of October, I will be conducting such seminars for the district for the third consecutive year.

It may sound self-serving, but I give this school district very high marks for identifying one of the root causes of a very significant problem: faculty and staff members not having an adequate understanding of English. And not only was the problem identified, a program was initiated to rectify the situation. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not the only school district that faces the problem of their high school students not having an adequate understanding of English grammar, as well as some of their faculty and staff members lacking sufficient knowledge to bring the students up to acceptable grammatical standards. And, in all probability, the history instructor mentioned above is not the only college professor who is a little short on knowledge of correct English grammar.

Whenever I get on my soapbox about grammar, people often tell me I put too much emphasis on the importance of grammar -- after all, they say, why does it matter what kind of grammar people use; the important thing is whether or not they understand what they are saying and writing to one another. I know that this is a popular position with some people, but let's look more deeply into the issue of using correct grammar.

Grammar, regardless of the country or the language, is the foundation for communication -- the better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message's intent and meaning. That is what communication is all about. Recent national and international events make it clear that in the United States today we are lacking in the quality of communication that leads to understanding our fellow citizens and the people of other countries -- and this at a time when better understanding at home and abroad is so necessary.

English is the primary grammatical standard for the world today -- in all venues of life: business, government, medicine, education, and so forth. In most countries where English is not the primary language, English is the language of second choice. For those of us who have had international students in our classrooms, although they usually speak with a noticeable accent, their knowledge of English grammar is frequently superior to that of our own students.

Most in-depth thinkers, regardless of their national identity, realize that correct grammar leads to the kind of power in leadership that comes from superior communication, and they plan accordingly. As the economy of the United States has sputtered and our federal government has continued to put off action until the last minute, our prestige in the world has suffered. Among the leadership of some non-western countries, this has fueled their dreams of becoming the new world leader.

Just think what it would be like if the international standard for language were Chinese, Russian, or Arabic. Some of the western world's long-standing adversaries have already begun to suggest such a change in the United Nations, where English is currently the official language. They comprehend that superior communication can lead to usurping world leadership and power, and they know how advantageous it would be for their own language to be the world standard. We in the United States had better pay attention -- this is not a mere pipe dream!

Our own grammatical standards began their gradual degradation as people began spending time watching TV instead of reading. Now, the big enemies are the texting epidemic and fascination with the Internet. Technological developments are not bad; on the contrary, they are good. How they are used and monitored is what counts.

In the United States, we really do need to focus our efforts on strengthening our understanding and use of correct English grammar.