grammar why ! matters

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For all those of you who might have read things like this, this, or this, I want to explain why the answer is “yes”, spelling and grammar matter.

Language is a Tool

Language is a tool used for many purposes.

If your goal is to entertain, there are different conventions. Singers like Bob Dylan can be highly entertaining while remaining nearly incomprehensible. If your goal is to connect to friends or loved ones, yet other conventions come into play.

Sometimes language is used for multiple things at once.

Language is a Convention

Language is a matter of convention. We simply cannot write or say whatever we want to however we want to and be understood.

If your purpose is communication, it behooves you to make your message clear. There are exceptions to this, too. I might be trying to communicate how worldly I am by using French or Italian food terms or pronunciations instead of English, even knowing the audience won’t understand them.

Communicating means using shared conventions.

Word Order

For instance, consider word order. Consider the following “understood be and to want we however to want we whatever say or write cannot simply we”. You’ve seen that sentence above, only in reverse. In reverse, it’s pretty much impossible to understand.

Even in the CBS piece by Steve Tobak, the author mocks bad grammar with “me want food”. Well, that has a subject, verb and object, in perfect English order, which is why it’s so easy to understand. It even has the tense of “want” and the number and lack of determiner for “food” right. The only mistake is the object/subject distinction in “me” vs. “I”!

Spelling?

Tobak goes on to quote a comment, “I jus read your article; ___. Very interesting!” What’s wrong with bad spelling? It’s unpleasant because it slows us down as readers. If it gets bad enough, it can block understanding. I had no problem detangling the last example, but how about “I js rd y ar — int!!!!!!!”?

Spelling used to be even more chaotic in English. It’s better in some other languages.

Disclaimers

I’m all for telegraphic speech. It works best in shared contexts. It’s a little harder with a bare Tweet. Language is incredibly tied up with context. Enough world knowledge can get you by, too. I might be able to refer to a TV show by “ST:TNG”, but my mom would have no idea what I was talking about.

For some purposes, precision and clarity matter much less. Consider drafting legislation vs. planning to meet at a restaurant vs. saying hello. Telegraphic speech can be very precise. Doctors’ notes to each other are a prime example. You don’t need a verb if everyone knows there’s only one thing to do with a device or a noun if there’s only one device to use.

Saying language is conventional and conventions should be followed is a subtly different stance from traditional linguistic prescriptivism. Languages change. If they didn’t, English wouldn’t even exist. I’m not railing against split infinitives, dangled prepositions, a complete failure to understand “who”/”whom” or even “I”/”me”, abandoning adverbial morphology, using “ain’t”, pronouncing “ask” like “axe”, etc. etc. I think these all have a good chance of achieving “proper” English status one day.

2 Responses to “grammar why ! matters”

  1. grammar why ! matters « Another Word For It Says:

    […] grammar why ! matters […]

  2. It is difficult to convey intonation in typed speech « Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science Says:

    […] just wanted to add the above comment to Bob’s notes on language. Spoken (and, to some extent, handwritten) language can be much more expressive than […]

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