Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Does grammar matter?

There's been a lot of discussion in the Fort Wayne blogosphere recently about the importance--or lack thereof--of bloggers' grammar. The conversation began with a Keith Edwards post that included this statement, in these exact words:

Some have commented about my writing ability (failure to put comma's and paragraphs) etc. etc. in the proper place. The comments came from so called English Majors and others in the print media. There has always been an inherent jealousy between print professionals and broadcasters like myself. Why do you think they now put pictures in newspapers, so readers can put a face with the person writing. But hey, I love everybody I don't carry a grudge (much). You see I write in "speak"...this is a conversation (yes, many times with myself) I don't particularly care about the proper use of punctuation. So off me please!
A couple of thoughts from my perspective as one of those "English majors":
  • One of the great things about blogs is that there's no barrier to entry from a writing skills standpoint. And one of the worst things about blogs is that there's no barrier to entry from a writing skills standpoint.
  • I agree that blogs are less formal than other forms of writing, which means a spelling/grammatical error here and there is to be expected (and you certainly can find them on SBB if you're looking for them). BUT, these errors should be the exception, not the rule. The reason rules of grammar exist is to make it easy as possible for the reader to understand what's being said. That should be the writer's first concern, which means he or she absolutely should care about grammar. Not caring about grammar, in fact, means that you don't care about your readers much, either.
  • "Conversational" writing means something written in an informal tone. "Conversational" does NOT equal "grammatically incorrect."
  • I have no idea what "So off me please!" means. Does he mean "off me" as in "kill me," or "off me" as in "get off my back"? Or is he using a British accent and he wants someone to get off his "please"? (Don't underestimate the importance of the comma.)
To his credit, Edwards seems interested only in being seen as someone with ideas worth sharing, not as a great writer. But his post highlights an important question that all aspiring writers need to ask: how much does this grammar stuff really matter?

The answer is that if you care about credibility and readability, it matters a lot. Sure, you may have readers who will put up with your grammatical errors. But they'll read your stuff despite your errors, not because of them.

As technology makes self-publishing more common, and as language becomes increasingly informal, it will be tempting to see grammar as old fashioned and irrelevant. It's important to remember, however, that the easier it is to access tools and resources to help you improve your writing, the less tolerance readers will have for bad grammar. And that means that you should have less tolerance for bad grammar in your own writing.

Keith Edwards may be able to get away with bad grammar because people already know who he is. You and I don't enjoy that same advantage, so grammar should matter more to us than it does to Edwards.

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