Why is the proper use of grammar important?

From time to time I find myself getting involved in a discussion about grammar. It’s always the same: on one hand we have the people who argue that good grammar is important, and on the other hand we have those who say it isn’t. Here I present my reasons for good grammar being important.
It boils down to this:

The purpose of good grammar is to ensure that what you write is correctly comprehended and is easy and enjoyable to read.

Correctly comprehended

The placement of a hyphen, comma, or apostrophe can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

Example 1: a hyphen

There were 60 odd competitors.

I wonder: in what way were they odd? The thoughtful placement of a hyphen clarifies the dilemma:

There were 60-odd competitors.” (The competitors weren’t really odd at all.)

Example 2: an apostrophe

The girls room is very untidy.

I wonder how many girls inhabit that room? An apostrophe can easily clarify this:

“girl’s room” – one girl inhabits the room

“girls’ room” – more than one girl inhabits the room

Example 3: “ie” or “eg”

Confusing these two is a very popular error, but do you realise that if you use the wrong one you’re actually saying something quite different to what you wanted to say?

“ie” is an abbreviation for the Latin “id est”, which means “that is”.

“eg” is an abbreviation for the Latin “exempli gratia”, which means “for example”.

So when you are referring to something specific, you should use ie, and when you are giving an example, use eg.

For example:

“The deadline for this project is in two days – ie, on Thursday.” – the deadline is on a specific day (Thursday).

“Please bring something to share to the picnic – eg, some of your famous potato salad.” – “… for example, some of your world-famous potato salad.” If ie had been used here, it would have meant that you have been asked specifically to bring some potato salad. Is that what was intended? The reader would have no way of knowing!

Easy and enjoyable to read

How many times have you read a sentence, been confused, and had to go back and re-read it to try and figure out what it meant? Does this interrupt your flow of thought and spoil the reading experience a little (or a lot)? If the author had paid a little more attention to his or her use of grammar, it would probably have been easier to read.

“Who cares if my grammar is bad? The important thing is that I am able to express myself!”

Yes, it’s important to be able to express yourself. But wouldn’t it be better if you could do so in a way that people would find easy to read and understand? Writing that is poorly punctuated and/or contains grammatical errors is difficult to read and sometimes impossible to understand. If the reader has to go back and re-read a sentence several times because they are not quite sure what it means, it spoils their reading experience and they are quite likely to misunderstand the point or even to give up and not read any further.

“I’ve survived just fine without bothering about grammar.”

Are you quite sure about that?

Have you, perhaps, wondered why you didn’t get the job that you felt you were so well suited for? Or why nobody bothers to reply to messages you post on internet bulletin boards? Or why you didn’t get many responses to your personal ad?

Job applications: Many employers are immediately put off when they receive a poorly written cover letter with a job application. Many will simply toss them into the big circular filing cabinet on the floor without even looking at the rest of the application.

Messages: I subscribe to a few technical mailing lists, and try to help people with their problems when I am able to. But if I have a hard time understanding what the person is trying to say, I leave it and move on. I don’t have time to try and decode their badly-written comments. I know I’m not the only who does this: poorly-written messages consistently receive fewer responses than well-written ones. I do make an exception for people whose native language isn’t English of course – although the sad truth is that people who have learned English as a foreign language frequently have a much better grasp of English grammar than those whose native language is English.

Personal ads: I’ve heard a comment like this several times when discussing online dating: “The first thing I notice is how the profile is written. If it’s badly written I move right on to the next candidate.”

I hope I’ve got my point across! Please feel free to comment and let me know if do or do not agree with me!

Get more great grammar tips in The Grammar Cookbook

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