Does Grammar Matter?
My post of last week on the proper use of “me,” “myself,” and “I” was my most popular to date if the comments are any indication. If you stuck around for the comments, you will have seen a little bit of debate on how much it really matters to use the language as the grammar fuddy duddies (of which I am one to some degree or another) would have us use it. Commenter nrhatch provided a link to a fun YouTube video narrated by comedian Stephen Fry that I’ll relink below:
There are no doubt many schools of thought on how important it really is to get the language “right.” I’ll consider two.
The pragmatist will say that as long as the writing in question conveys the desired message, the finer points of grammar don’t matter a whole lot. That is, if I write “Johnny and me are going to the unicorn store,” nobody’s going to mistake my meaning, and “Johnny and I are going to the unicorn store” adds no real clarity. So the pragmatist may say that insisting on the me/I distinction in such a sentence amounts to insisting on a rule for the rule’s sake (you might call this pedantry) and not because the rule is actually terribly valuable. From the perspective of a pragmatic and forgiving grammarian, being called down for the me/I distinction in a case like the one I cite here might seem a lot like being given a traffic ticket for rolling gently through a well-lit and deserted intersection in the dead of night in spite of the stop sign. Sure, you’ve broken the law, but it burns you up to get the ticket and you might mutter a few choice words under your breath about the police officer as you drive away.
Then, of course, there are the sticklers (or SNOOTs). The sticklers insist upon proper usage sometimes even to the point of awkwardness. Sometimes, a sentence just reads better if you split the darned infinitive or end it with a preposition, but the sticklers will have none of it. The sticklers carry grammar first-aid kits for fixing ungrammatical signs they find in public. They point out misuse of “whom” in Facebook posts to their offending friends and family.The sticklers do things like write blog posts about how to use objective and subjective pronouns properly, and they most assuredly read books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (even if they disagree with Mr. Strunk’s agenda).
I fall somewhere between the two camps, or paradoxically somehow in both of them. Although I happily use informal language in my speech and in many of the things I write, I generally know the rules pretty well (I even know why some of them, like the split infinitive rule, are stupid). I don’t insist upon the rules, but I geek out with other grammar nerds when we’re thrown together. I think having a standardized grammar serves some defensible purposes, and my posts here to date have reflected an interest in exposing the rules to those who’re interested, but I also know that our usage rules evolved from our usage. Speech patterns emerged before anybody ever wrote the first grammar book.
Since there had been some debate in the other post, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the question of how much standard grammar and usage matter. Do you fall more on the pragmatic side or the stickler side? If you’re more of a pragmatist, how far are you willing to go? For example, would you accept a sentence like “River jumped clothes no into while wearing he Saturday last the”? It pretty clearly conveys information but is far from standard usage. If you’re more of a stickler, are there any of the standard rules you’re willing to relax a bit? If so, what criteria do you use to decide which rules to relax?