I was once volunteering as an English tutor at a school for immigrant adults learning English. During an in-class grammar exercise, a Somali woman asked me to explain to her why a particular sentence was written the way it was, and I couldn’t come up with a suitable answer. I tried to use my English major brain to explain where the subjects and the verbs were, and that it’s really important to match the singular “she” with the singular “is,” but she understood that already—she wanted to know why. I stumbled for a while, ultimately unable to answer the question she was trying to ask: why is this sentence written like this? Why couldn’t it have been written another way?
Chapter 2 of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace challenged my English brain in a similar way. When I hear that my views on grammar might be restrictive, I want to put my foot down and argue. But ultimately Williams and Bizup’s statements about grammar and language were far more credible than my personal desire to make everybody properly use the words “fewer” and “less.”
Williams and Bizup challenge the assertion that there is a set of grammatical rules that must be followed lest our society fall into an uneducated hole of illiteracy we can’t climb out of. I thought their most fascinating argument was the discussion of logic in English grammar. They state, “If by logical we mean regular and therefore predictable, then Standard English is in many ways less logical than nonstandard English…the standard aren’t I is less logical than the historically predictable but socially stigmatized ain’t I.” (11) With the idea that proper English often doesn’t stem from a place of reason, how do we justify using Standard English at all? Should we throw away the rulebook and allow the natural progression of our culture take the reigns?
Williams and Bizup suggest, “If writers whom we judge to be competent regularly violate some alleged rule and most careful readers never notice, then the rule has no force.” (17) I agree with this statement, but I don’t think it’s fair to stop there without asking why we can sometimes be lenient with the rules. There are pros and cons to both following the rulebook down to the last split infinitive and ignoring the rules for the sake of focusing on what makes sense in the author’s mind. It is easiest to understand these pros and cons when we consider Williams and Bizup’s three kinds of grammar rules: real rules, social rules, and invented rules.
There isn’t much disputing the purpose of real rules. They keep our language sensible and even the most novice English speaker learns these rules right away. The discussion of social rules and invented rules gets a little more interesting. While the book doesn’t much dispute the need for social rules, it does emphasize that the major dividing factor between people who naturally understand social rules and those who don’t is their level of education. The authors explain, “The only writers who self-consciously try to follow them are those not born into Standard English who are striving to rise into the educated class.” (12)
So the pros of understanding social rules are simple; an understanding of social rules implies a higher level of education. But can there be cons to these social rules? I think many would argue that when writers aren’t restricted by social conventions they have a greater opportunity to express their creativity. For example, let’s say your best friend E.E. Cummings asks you to read his new poem i sing of Olaf glad and big. The lowercase “i” might bother you, but perhaps it is worth disregarding Standard English for the sake of his poetic style. Then you turn around and your buddy Kanye West asks you to listen to his new song in which he says, “What’s a god to a non-believer? Who don’t believe in anything?” Are you going to tell him, “Kanye, I believe it’s supposed to be ‘Who doesn’t believe in anything?’” Of course not, because this instance of ignoring the social rules is strategically placed in the song and is necessary for Kanye’s creative expression. Although Kanye can take creative liberty because of the power he holds in society and among the artistic community, there is an indisputable power underneath the use of incorrect grammar.
That said, I am nowhere close to telling you to throw away the rulebook altogether. While there is certainly a place for creative grammar usage, I believe that properly observing the rules allows for the advancement of society as a whole. In a Huffington Post blog about the importance of grammar, author William B. Bradshaw explains, “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.” (8) And so we return to what Williams and Bizup discussed in Chapter 2; there needs to be a balance between correctness and clarity, which Bradshaw seems to argue are one in the same.
While Williams and Bizup explain the necessary balance between correctness and clarity, I stand with Bradshaw in saying that there isn’t much of a difference between the two in academic writing. While certain artists and writers like Kanye West can ignore correctness for the sake of their work and still be clear, I would argue that there are very few instances in which correctness and clarity are mutually exclusive. I believe this concept is important for writers to recognize for the sake of future generations. We must adapt with the times while maintaining a level of correctness that aligns with what our society understands to be clear.
Bradshaw goes on to explain the global influence English has around the world, and the importance of maintaining correctness when standing on a global platform. English is the second language of most countries, is the standard for communicating about the sciences around the world, and is the official language of the United Nations. I believe if we take too much creative liberty with grammar, the powerful structure created by the three types of rules (real, social, and invented) would struggle to maintain its influence. It is important to employ grammar rules in order to use English as a global communication device that allows for the advancement of society as a whole, but perhaps we can overcome the need to distinguish “who” and “whom” without sending society spinning out of control.
There are compelling arguments for disregarding the strict rules of grammar and keeping the rulebook tightly at your side, which means that there ultimately must be a balance between the two. The authors of Style seemed to explain a set of parallels that arise when discussing the pros and cons of severe grammar usage: educated versus uneducated, power versus suppression, creativity versus structure, and correctness versus clarity. But these parallels don’t always have to oppose each other; there is a time and place for using the three kinds of rules.
Williams and Bizup make one final statement that is crucial to our use of invented rules as editors. They say, “If you try to obey all the rules all the time, you risk becoming so obsessed with rules that you tie yourself in knots.” (13) This is a valuable place to conclude after a whirlwind of debating the positives and negatives of holding grammar dear to your heart, because ultimately our writing should flow from our minds without nitpicking too heavily—we need to get our ideas out first, and hopefully the grammar will follow.
While I still argue that following the rules of grammar is crucial for the sake of maintaining unification within the English speaking community and the ability to effectively communicate ideas, this chapter in Style made me consider the reasons why I value grammar and the ways in which I can lessen my affirmation that incorrect grammar always is a sign of “moral corruption and social decay.”
Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014.
Bradshaw, William B., “Why Grammar Is Important” Huffington Post, October 19, 2013.