Why we need grammar

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 4, 2011.

On this day each year, March 4, we celebrate National Grammar Day, a chance to honor grammar in all its glory. But why should grammar get a holiday? Why is it even important at all?

A couple of recent discussions inspired me to think about why grammar is important. Of course it is, or I wouldn’t waste a bunch of time writing about it. But I’ve always thought of it as a given, rather than something needing an explanation.

So when someone on Twitter asked, “How would you convince someone that understanding grammar is important? ‘I will never use it, I know how to spell without it’ ” I had to articulate an answer.

First, spelling doesn’t equal grammar. (It’s important too, though.)

Second, you do use grammar — we all use it, every time we speak or write. Most of us don’t even think about it if we’re speaking our native language. Grammar is why we know Yoda talks funny, why we are able to differentiate “Dog bites man” from “Man bites dog,” and why we can pile up modifiers and clauses and compound predicates and still come away with a sentence that makes perfect sense.

Grammar isn’t a bunch of arcane rules invented by pedants to trip students up. It’s a system of language — building sounds into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences — most of which you already know. Grammar is what makes language work as a means of communication. It grows and changes; it bends to accommodate poets and philosophers and physicists.

But when grammar is ignored or abused, sentences come crashing down and meaning gets lost. Certainly sometimes people can figure out what you meant, even if it’s not what you said, but other times your communication fails. You’re not deliberately wasting breath or ink or bandwidth, but if you’re not being clear, you may as well be. And that’s why grammar is important.

Back to the figuring-out-what-you-meant part: Someone commented to me (in an e-mail lamenting, not encouraging, sloppy writing), “I suppose it’s true that language use is all about communication, so if you get your point across, it may not matter as much if you use proper grammar rules.”

Well, I suppose it may not. And “good enough” may be sufficient for texts and status updates and casual conversation. But if you’re speaking or writing professionally (this includes students), don’t you want to give your clients, bosses, colleagues, teachers and potential audiences — or, for that matter, your friends and relatives — better than “good enough”? Don’t all the people you communicate with deserve clear, smooth, meaningful language?

You wouldn’t show up for a job interview or a business presentation in sweats and a T-shirt. Your language shouldn’t either.


Celebrate National Grammar Day by spreading the word that good grammar puts you in good company.
The Twitter hashtag for today is #grammarday.
The National Grammar Day home page has all sorts of fun grammar facts, and a free e-card to boot.