Why study grammar?

A couple of posts at the always-excellent Language Log ridicule an article by James Kilpatrick entitled, “Why do we study grammar?” Now I agree with everything the language-loggers say—Kilpatrick earns their scorn—but I think that he does have a point in there somewhere. Admittedly it’s hard to tell, as rather than actually make it he provides a couple of silly and patronizing analogies, and then veers off into Just-Plain-Wrongness.

Quoth Kilpatrick:

Grammar is what she wears in a world beyond her living room. Kathryn is not going to drive to Portland dressed in a polka-dot bikini. She might complete her mission, but people would talk. And at a certain level they would not say pleasant things.

Is good grammar a false value? At one level of human relations, it is certainly a lesser value — even a minimal value. The boy who drops out of school can live a happy life as a hod carrier, and if he don’t speak no good English he pays the rent and, you know, it’s like he treats his wife real good. He probably makes a greater contribution to society than some public officials one could mention.

What I take him to mean here, perhaps stretching a bit, is that “good grammar” (really “standard American grammar”) is a calling card, a bona fide, a shibboleth. Using standard grammar (and spelling, and punctuation) shows that you have taken the trouble to observe the norms of society. It is evidence that you have put at least some thought into whatever it is you’re writing.

As a possibly poor example, in my time-wasting perusal of the vastness of the internet, I ignore without much thought anything that deviates wildly from standard grammar (or containing too many misspellings, or too little punctuation, or TOO MANY CAPS, or too few). Sufficiently slapdash grammar (and spelling and so on) in blog posts and comments is, in my experience, almost invariably a sign that whatever content they may have is worthless, even for time-wasting purposes. (Not that worthless content can’t be couched in flawless standard grammar, of course). For the internet my standards are pretty loose. I have similar but higher standards for printed material—and for job applications I happen to review.

Very interestingly—and I doubt Kilpatrick would agree here—NON-standard grammar makes an excellent shibboleth. My tweenage daughter’s crowd would be quick to pick up on minor deviations from their tween syntax and vocabulary. And such has it always been: language provides an easy and fun way to sort out the cool from the uncool (the uncool including, of course, parents: parents have never been able to imitate their children’s argot correctly, and have always been soundly and rightly mocked for it when they try).

Other examples might include, oh, I don’t know, hip-hop culture; the Lolcats (I don’t know whether it’s clear to anyone what lolspeak’s rules are, but you can sure tell when people get it wrong); professional jargon of many sorts, and so on.

Another point I’d make, possibly vaguely related to what Kilpatrick says, is that formal rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation uniformitize the style of a piece of writing, helping its form “disappear” in favor of its content. That is, if you, dear reader, see only the syntax you’re expecting to see, then you don’t notice it. You are left free to focus on the content, which is presumably what the author wanted. Grammatical clunkers–to Kilpatrick a split infinitive or deviant usage of “that” and “which,” to me a run-on sentence–distract the reader from the business of reading.

I assume that’s one reason why the big “middlebrow” magazines—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s—have such strict editing standards. They impose a level of aesthetically pleasing and distraction-free uniformity of tone across their articles. The style guides differ from place to place, giving each a certain amount of subtle individuality: I’m particularly fond of the diaereses The New Yorker puts in “coöperate” and “reëlected.”


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One Response to “Why study grammar?”

  1. robertstevenson Says:

    Love your thinking on this. I’d be in your debt if you’d comment on my columns on grammar. My approach is to be fun and informative. http://robertstevenson.wordpress.com

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