May 14, 2007
Grammar Was Made for People, Not People for Grammar.
Forget everything you learned about English in grade school. None of it is true.
How many rules of grammar did you have to memorize growing up? Well, there are only two:
Rule #1: There are no rules of grammar.
Why are there no rules? Because there is no such thing as standard English. It doesn’t exist. English is a language that is constantly in flux--constantly being modified, poked, pulled, distorted, bent, folded and mutilated. Words are constantly being created and lost. Grammar changes almost as easily. Spoken English changes first; eventually written English catches up, at least partway. The good changes tend to stick, and the bad ones tend to fade away. It’s all part of the genius of English.
Sure there are purists who say you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition or write one without both a subject and a predicate. The fact is we do it all the time, and even the great writers do it. All the time. That’s part of what makes them great.
The purpose of grammar is not to torture third-grade boys or even to give editors jobs. Then why do we have grammar? There is one--and only one--purpose: to facilitate clear, effective, powerful, artful communication. Having certain conventions and regular patterns of words helps us do this. We don’t have to laboriously unravel every single sentence we hear or read. So it is helpful to follow the conventions—sometimes.
But at other times, the conventions get in the way. And when they do, we shouldn’t hesitate to throw them out. Look at my sentence fragment a couple paragraphs up. It communicates much more effectively than it would as part of a complete sentence. I admit, of course, that what makes it work is that the rest of my sentences are complete. If I only wrote in sentence fragments, “All the time” would lose its power.
Stiffly following the conventions of grammar all the time can result in stiff writing, which creates boredom, which creates poor communication. If you want to communicate well, yes, learn the rules. But as soon as you do, forget them.
Watch this space in weeks to come to see me wrestle the serial comma into abject submission.