How Important is Grammar?

Grammar can be one of the “ugly words” of the writing community. That’s because, if it’s not used in the right way, grammar can stifle writing just as fast as smashing someone’s keyboard. Without the way to express their ideas, many would-be writers simply give up. Faced with a wall of rules, they view grammar as just that, not a means to an end. What’s to be done? Scale back or change grammar teaching?

The phrase “love-hate relationship” is used too often, but it applies here. I believe that teaching grammar is necessary and mostly good in nonfiction, but I turn and reject it when it begins to ask too much from my fiction writing. Is it egotistical to think that much of my fiction writing is beyond the reach of grammar? Maybe.

But surely, once one has reached a certain skill level, one can use their mastery of grammar to break it. The point is, what is that skill level? I can only say that it varies for each person. Eventually, you can write reasonably well without having a grammar textbook in front of you. Once the building is complete, you can begin to remove the scaffolding. You realize that grammar is largely suggestion.

This “subconscious grammar” is the key. It is what the teaching of grammar should be pointing towards. Even more importantly, this subconscious grammar can be created simply by reading. We soak up grammar rules without necessarily recognizing them, and we apply them in our own writing.

Perhaps I wish that grammar didn’t have to be taught, that everyone would be able to rely on their subconscious knowledge of the English language. But that subconscious language takes time and practice to develop. It takes a lot of reading that some people just won’t get. And this is all ignoring people learning English for the first time.

There are many aspects that I haven’t discussed. How grammar should be taught I leave to teachers. I only plead it not be overbearing, and can circumvent that hatred of grammar that I mentioned earlier. How grammar bridges fiction and nonfiction I have alluded to, but not said outright. I only say that grammar is less necessary in fiction, partly because of the tone and partly because of the audience.

I know I’ve only touched the surface of a much larger argument. If I have concluded anything so far, it is that grammar is necessary for proper writing, and should be taught in schools. However, I think that grammar shouldn’t be focused on in more advanced courses, beyond a simple recap. Being taught grammar is only teaching you to think and write a certain way. And that’s the most important thing. That’s always the goal that we should have in mind.


One comment

  1. I think I agree with you. There comes a point, eventually, where one is just GOOD enough for grammar to not matter. I think doing this successfully, however, requires knowing grammar inside and out. (You somewhat address this by saying that we soak up most grammatical rules by reading.) It’s like another slightly overused phrase: “You need to know the rules in order to break the rules.” I like this post though–it’s definitely a balance.


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