As long as readers can understand you, grammar shouldn’t matter. Or should it?
Your ideas are big and important, and that’s what readers should pay attention to, right?
Or you don’t want to come off as a snob or stuffy or pedantic or anything other than yourself. You write from the heart and the soul, and changing the natural way you talk and write will ruin everything.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Grammar is how we use a language.
Grammar in the broadest sense means how a language is put together, the system, and the order of words. It includes the ways we indicate one person or two people, one thing or many things, past, future, present, and all the little connecting words and shades of meaning in between.
Grammar can also mean specific rules of a language as they’re defined at a certain time and in a certain place.
American English grammar, for example, in the 1800s was vastly different from what it is now. And grammar rules varied, of course, depending on a person’s level of education and location. Language wasn’t nearly as standardized as it is now, of course, since style guides and the Internet weren’t available.
But as in any era, serious writers used the most standardized form of language possible. Even with their own flair and rule-bending, they still strove to be understood.
Writing is like talking, and talking includes grammar.
Picture this. When you were three years old, your communication skills weren’t great. In fact, if you’re like most little kids, you probably threw fits and tantrums—not because you weren’t getting what you want but because you couldn’t ask for what you need.
By your fifth birthday, your communication improved. By age 10, you learned that talking and even writing in a way that other people understand is your best bet if you want to be taken seriously.
And by the time you became an adult—unless you’re incredibly obstinate or clueless—you learned to communicate in specific ways with various audiences.
You probably use different grammar and word choices with different groups of people.
You talk to a baby one way and your kids another way, and you switch gears when talking with your spouse or your mom.
The note you write for your kid’s teacher is different from notes for your kids.
And among family and close friends, you use your native dialect and slang. You might even have code words and gestures nobody else can decipher.
But with co-workers, colleagues, and business acquaintances, you rev it up a bit. You speak or write a little more formally and carefully. You tend to use standard English, and you take extra care with your grammar, especially around your boss.
Results vary, especially if you work at Taco Bell.
And during a job interview, you use the best English you know. You want to be taken seriously. You want the hiring manager to see you as an accomplished, intelligent person. You want to show you’re taking the gig seriously, and language is your tool.
That depends on the situation of course, but I’ll assume you’re not a truck driver or forklift operator.
Like talking, your writing should target a specific audience.
In high school, college, or university, you might have been taught to write for audience.
You might recall a professor announcing, “Don’t write for me. Write for an educated audience that’s intelligent but unfamiliar with the specific subject matter. Explain thoroughly and well, but assume the reader knows the earth isn’t flat.”
And since the professor is still the person you have to impress, you use the best grammar possible. You want to be understood and get a good grade, after all, and you know grammar counts.
If you’re a blogger who writes only for friends, or if you write for a small town publication, grammar might not matter so much. But why write like you live in the hills and only come to town once a month?
Now if your audience lives in the hills, write the way they talk. Don’t be all high falutin’ and tootin’ your horn or you’ll get made fun of, at best.
But if you’re writing for an educated, global audience, be an educated, global writer.
And remember: the way you communicate doesn’t change the what you’re communicating. Good grammar doesn’t change you, your vision, your story, or your dream. It’s just a tool. An important tool, but a tool nevertheless.
If you’re a writer who wants to succeed—whether it’s nonfiction or creative writing—you’d better know the rules of standard English grammar.
Break the rules all you want. Follow the trends. Just make sure you know when and how to break them and for what effect.
Comments are always welcome! And if you need to brush up on your grammar, I offer individual coaching to get you up to speed.