The Pros and Cons of Strict Grammar

Alexis Gaither

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.

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5 Comments

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  1. I especially appreciate your line that states: “We must adapt with the times while maintaining a level of correctness that aligns with what our society understands to be clear.” What society understands to be clear may not always exactly match the “invented” rules of grammar. “This package goes to whomever wants it” will be understood identically to “This package goes to whoever wants it,” and most casual listeners won’t stop to consider the finer points of whoever versus whomever. However, my Communications & Journalism editing professor from last semester made a good point when he remarked that just because a rule is invented doesn’t mean it should be disregarded. He pointed out that an editor might deliberately ignore an invented rule for the sake of clarity, but that doesn’t mean that every reader will understand and respect the choice. If your newspaper article has even one split infinitive, he said, you can be sure some grammar stickler will email you to berate you for it. And that potentially introduces yet a third side to the correctness debate: sure, some rules are invented, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in following them. If nothing else, it could save us from the angry emails of grammar purists who would say, to borrow Winston Churchill’s line, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”

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    • I found your introduction to be very relatable. I spent last year volunteering with Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), and I have to say the language barrier can prove quite difficult to breach. It seems to be second nature to native speakers of any language to immediately understand why something is phrased a certain way or why a dictionary defines a word as this, but it’s also slang for something else. (The only example I can think of off the top of my head is something like, “Dang! That girl is fine.” Clearly “fine” means something different than its usual denotation.)

      With that being said, I think there’s a balance to be found from being too much of a grammar Nazi. It’s important to find the line between grammatically correct and inventive sentence structure. I’m by no means telling you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree with Alexis; the rules are our fundamentals, and where would we be without our fundamentals? In my opinion, those who are truly successful at creating memorable prose are those who sustain a thorough understanding of grammar and follow those rules, but also are those who are able toe the line between grammar and something new. I find that the authors I remember freshly in my mind are the ones that don’t necessarily play by the rules. I’ll end on this note: “Don’t let the fear of striking out, keep you from playing the game.” (Yes, that’s from Cinderella Story. And yes, it fit perfectly.)

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  2. I love your use of personal touch right from the beginning. I never realized how hard it actually is to explain grammar–you either know it, or you don’t. Your description of how you “tried to use your English major brain” to explain subject and verbs really emphasizes how simple yet complex grammar is.

    So, the woman who wanted to know “why” already understood the rules of grammar, but what she really wanted to know why the sentence had to be that way. Is there really an answer to her “why” question? Why do we have to follow the rulebook–and isn’t the English language constantly changing? Aren’t there numerous ways to go about grammar, the structuring of sentences, etc?

    This passage really got me thinking:
    “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?”

    Personally, I like the idea of going with your gut when it comes to rules. I like how you emphasized the three types of rules: real rules, social rules, and invented rules.

    Which ones should we follow? I think that with our culture today it is more acceptable to actually speak using social/invented rules, but when it comes to formal writing, “real rules” are important. I agree with Williams and Bizup when 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.” I think this is so true. It becomes obvious when someone is trying to hard when it comes to grammar, and it becomes stressful when you are constantly trying to be grammatically correct.

    So all in all, I really think it comes down to what the setting is. Go with your gut on how to go about the grammar rulebook!

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  3. Common English doesn’t stem from a place of reason. There is no ultimate universal law binding grammar to a certain form. It’s a socialized goofy thing. I agree with Sofia, your take on the real, social, and invented rules is very insightful. I found the portion where you elaborate on William and Bizups’ comment about non-native English speakers “striving to rise in the educated class” super interesting. Their statement acknowledges the classism within education that bleeds into our perception of grammar rules. Because the wealthy have had better access to education and opportunity, they have been able to refine their grammatical skills. Enforcing these rules upon others outside that realm of education is enforcing the classism imbedded within them. In regard to the “real” rules of grammar, it would seem that “everyone” understands them as unifying and understandable because somewhere along the life of the written English word, we made ourselves understand them. Furthermore, it’s fascinating that we only accept broken rules in art when they come from an author we deem knowledgeable of the rule.

    But ultimately, as Anne also acknowledges, there is an undeniable value in following some grammatical rules today. I’m a little angsty, so I still like to think it’s only because we’ve been so so so socialized into accepting them… so of course they’re valuable because it’s all we know as “right!”

    ps. I love your voice. It’s real great.

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  4. John Muellner May 11, 2016 — 4:37 pm

    I found the Bradshaw quote about grammar being the “foundation for communication” interesting. I agree that rules are necessary, but in the English language we have so many exceptions it’s hard to believe any rules even continue to work, so when I read that it’s the foundation a part of me was a little skeptical. I think you make a good point though in saying that we are influenced by all three kinds of rules, and our writing is ultimately a blend of all of them. I also like that you mentioned that Williams and Bizup say not to follow all three at once. It’s refreshing to hear that contributors to a book on writing can be open minded enough to realize that there’s more taking place in writing than just rules. I think we would lose our personal touch in writing if we tried to follow all of the rules all of the time, and our writing would all begin to look the same.

    After reading this I definitely have a greater respect for English teachers. You point our how it was difficult for you to explain why a sentence worked the way it did, and I realize that I might not know either if someone asked me. Much of our writing, in terms of rules, becomes habit. It is interesting, that even though we follow these rules for years we might not actually know why they work, or what would happen to our writing if they didn’t exist. Also, your voice was good throughout the piece, from starting with your personal experience, to referring to celebrities as friends, it all felt like you which was great and inviting.

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