‘Intelligence supersedes grammar… Grammar is secondary to content… Language is changing anyway so grammar doesn’t really matter…’
These are some of the statements I (over)heard during the week at a conference I attended for PhD researchers. These candidates were were having informal discussions about their work and their personal processes in writing up their research.
As a writer, I was astounded. But as someone who recognises the need for content to be accessible, I was horrified. These people were completely missing the point. Grammar provides a structure for writing to ensure that it is able to be read. As I tell my writers’ group participants, grammar is the road rules of writing. It is a set of rules that, if followed, ensures everyone is able to read your writing. Grammar provides a framework for communication.
In the context of the conference, I had to wonder, what is the point of spending 60+ hours a week for four years reading, researching, analysing, synthesising, then writing up your work if you can’t communicate it?
There are many issues relating to grammar, not the least of which is credibility. Credibility is vitally important in effective communication.The mechanics of writing can’t be underestimated if a writer wants to present a credible, trustworthy message. There seems to be a common (mis)perception that if the material to be read contains information that is intelligent and important, then people will read it regardless. This is not necessarily the case.
Reading any type of communication, whether it be a novel, an email, a blackboard menu (and haven’t we all fought the urge to edit one of these?), or a thesis, is is done so with a common understanding of what it is to read. And thought the definition of ‘reading’ is changing (the subject of my PhD and a discussion for another time), this should not undermine or reduce the importance of the common understanding by which we currently read and understand material. Each language has its own syntax, and to communicate effectively in whichever language you use, you must understand and be able to replicate it in order to communicate with others, especially in the written format.
Generally speaking, people will not be able to see through a grammatically incompetent piece of writing to recognise the value of the content. If a person wants to establish themselves in a field with any kind of authority, they must be credible; not just in their specific field, but in the broader context. And that means being able to engage people.
I’m not just talking about PhDs here. If you are an aspiring writer and you send a query to an agent or publisher, do you really think they’ll read past the first grammatical error they see? Probably not.
I used to get a lot of requests to review books and/or manuscripts. Some authors made the job of rejecting a manuscript easy. I’d delete any emails that were not grammatically sound, without even reading the abstract. Often, one paragraph in an email would tell me more about a writer, than the entire content of their manuscript. Sound harsh? It probably is, but it is also indicative of being time poor. And aren’t we all time poor these days?
Another example of how important grammar is to credibility came to mind recently when I received an email newsletter from a local politician. There was an error in the very first line. I moved to delete the email but then noticed the picture of the person and recognised him. It was a young politician that I’d met and spoken to at length a few months prior. He was earnest and idealistic (as many pollies are when they first start out) and he genuinely wanted to make a difference. Instead of deleting his attempt to reach out to his community, I edited his email and sent it back with an offer to edit future communications. He accepted, gratefully.
People don’t generally notice correct grammar, they’re too busy reading the content of the message. But people DO notice bad grammar and are quick to dismiss it BEFORE getting to the content, hence message lost. Don’t let this happen to you.
So, back the to the title of this post, grammar doesn’t really matter… WRONG! GRAMMAR DOES MATTER. Use it properly. Or if you can’t use it yourself, get someone who can to help you out.
Fellow grammarphiles might appreciate Weird Al Yankovich’s take on the matter. Watch the video above.