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Why Grammar? or, Granma, Why Grammar?

Michael is a teacher, writer, poet, sometime philosopher, observer and commentator on the human circus, all-around wise-guy and know-it-all.

The importance of grammar

The National Council of Teachers of English once described the importance of grammar thusly:

  • Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children--we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences--that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity.
  • People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. And knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.

Grammar Police on Patrol!


Practical Reasons for Good Grammar

Not all of us aspire to be Grammar Nazis conquering every stray comma or errant participle. There are some practical reasons for learning grammar. Let's go through the list:

Writing is different from speaking: The first reason is that even though as native speakers, we have an intuitive grasp of grammar, writing is much less forgiving than day-to-day speech. I mean, even if we don't remember much from Mrs. Grundy's lessons in grade school, we do not go around talking like Yoda --

Grammar important is if like educated person speak want to you.

When we write, any lapses in grammar are frozen on the page (or the computer screen) and are there for all eternity for the world to see and laugh at. (And believe me, they will!)

Readability: Two, if you scatter obstacles in the form of typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar through your writing, getting your point across is going to be as difficult as traversing a minefield. Your reader is going to be so distracted by all the mistakes, he or she is going to totally miss your point.

For instance, somebody posted this on Facebook:

I would rather be pissed off, then pissed on.

What the writer meant was

I would rather be pissed off than pissed on

A reasonable preference, to be sure, but what the writer actually communicated was

I would rather be pissed off, and then, after that, pissed on.

A little kinky, don't you think?

Another writer plaintively wrote,

Can you just listen to me?

And was answered


So, now that the writer got the interlocutor's attention and the person on the other end is listening to the cry from the heart and soul, the writer explained what was on her mind:

I like you, ok? And I feel that something is totally missing in my hart.

Only to have her spelling corrected.

I think it's an E.

The point here is that if your bad writing causes the potential love of your life to pay more attention to your form of your writing rather than the cries from your anguished, lonely soul ... maybe you'd better pay a little more attention to your grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Then there is the note sent home by the grammar school teacher requesting that parents sent donations for the food panty (I'm sure she meant food pantry).

Sometimes bad writing results in mangled meaning. For instance, a church bulletin board once announced:

Don't let anxiety kill you. Let the church help!

Knowing grammar has a practical job-related value, as well. Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit, writes that he does not hire people with bad grammar skills.

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.

If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use "it's," then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with. ... Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts. [emphasis added]

Pause a moment and reflect on Mr. Wiens's point: he and everyone else use the quality of your writing as a proxy for assessing who you are and what abilities you possess. Put simply, write like an illiterate hick from the sticks of Pigsbutt, Alabama (no offense to anyone from either Pigsbutt or Alabama), and they will assume you possess all the abilities and intelligence of said stereotypical hick.

Happy, literate denizens of Pigsbutt, Alabama

Happy, literate denizens of Pigsbutt, Alabama

Write, so that I may judge you!

Another business application of grammar -- which relates in a general sense to the rules of writing -- is that even if we are not good grammarians ourselves, we tend to think less of people who make writing mistakes. Consider the following business memo -- an actual memo in an actual business (the names have been changed to protect the guilty):

From: Dorothie Gibberish

To: Acme Widget Team

September 7, 2000

Re: Pre-pro mtg

We were originally talking about having the JC pre-pro meeting at the location for the commercial shoot in 2 weekends, but now it seems that Peterwants to do it at the agency & I have to agree with him. I am currently working on & putting together a pre-pro book & schedule of locations. I need copies of maps& storyboards & copy & all signed estimates for the pre-pro book. I will need this by end of day, tomorrow.

I think we should have the meeting at 4 next Wednesday is that OK with everybody? Please let me know Asap & I can order food. What do you all want? Actually, I don’t know where to order food. Sharon, cn you help me? If we want to have th meeting in the morning, we can, & Sharon, maybe you can help me order beagles & coffee & fruit.

It is very extremly important that we decide what we want to accomplish at the shoot. We have to have Peter, Bill,Bruce& Sergios approval of the storyboards &all copy at this pre-pro. Do we have legal approval? Hwo does this? Brooke? Len?

Remember that we have to make sure that the location of the shoot is outside of LA so we don’t get SAG picketers &strikers making losts of noise.

The shoot will be on Saturday and Sunday, from 10am – 10p.m. each day. We WILL be going into overtime for all prod people so we will have to make sure that craft services provides lots of coffees. Also, will we need diet food for the Talent? Who is doing the voiceover?

Again, I will need 3 copies of all storyboards, copy, signed estimates & maps for the shoot so I can put them in the pre-pro book.

Let me kow when you want to have the meeting so I can set it up. Sharon, pls contact me later &we can discuss food.



If you were to receive Dorothie Gibberish's memo, would you have any idea what she was asking you to do? If you were the high-priced corporate attorneys, would you struggle through the parts of the memo about ordering "beagles & coffee & fruit" for the breakfast meeting?

For those who still don't get the joke, I'm sure she really means "bagels" for breakfast, and not beagles.

One is a cute little dog. The other is a yummy breakfast roll. One you take for a walk and the other you eat with cream cheese. Not to be confused with each other!

Let me illustrate:

This is a beagle:


This is a bagel


A good writer is a good thinker!

A good writer is a good thinker. Writing well and clearly -- and sometimes this means forcing yourself to write well and clearly forces you to examine your ideas and make sure they are reasonable, logical and compelling. In a this vein, the following essays, while adequately constructed on a sentence-by-sentence level violate rules of logic (not to mention common sense):

Jeremy's essay

Jeremy's essay

Good grammar can keep you out of jail too!

I think you can understand the poor teacher's frustration, but consider -- if you were an employer, would you hire poor, scattered Jeremy?

Good grammar can keep you out of jail, too! A bank robber once got nabbed, in part, because he spelled "money" M-U-N-Y. The bank teller realized the man was such an idiot, he could be tricked into robbing the bank across the street—where police summoned by the teller were waiting.

In another case you'd only find on CSI: Grammar Police! was the case of the murderer who wrote taunting messages to the police. Only, the messages were so badly written and misspelled, and confused quotation marks with dashes, that once the police compared the notes from the killer to the writing of a prime suspect, they had all the evidence they needed.

In the slammer! And all because of bad grammar!

So, it's in the interest of improving your love life, helping you get and keep a job, and keeping you out of jail that we embark on this adventure in grammar and style in writing!

Lastly, consider that grammar can save us from excruciating embarrassment and long-winded explanations -- that's not really what I meant.

For instance, this routine is familiar: when a student is late or absent from school, a letter from the parents must be supplied for the absence to be excused.

Here is an excuse that suggests the parent was excused from school too many times in their own youth.

  • "Please excuse Lisa for being absent. She was sick, and I had her shot."


  • "Dear School: Please ekscuse John being absent on Jan. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and also 33."

Sometimes, warning labels present us with confounding instructions that leave the question, just what do they mean?

  • On a Swedish chainsaw. "Warning! Please do not try to stop with hands or genitals!!"

Even if the sentence construction is correct, the order of ideas can cause the reader to totally miss the point:

A sign warning us that the sign has sharp edges (oh, yeah, by the way, the bridge ahead is out)

A sign warning us that the sign has sharp edges (oh, yeah, by the way, the bridge ahead is out)

Lastly, grammar can save lives -- it might be important to note the difference between ...


But do not despair, because help is available.

(Kind of misses the point about being "illiterate.")

(Kind of misses the point about being "illiterate.")

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