Why Bother with Grammar?

by Rosette Liberman


To answer this question, we must first ask, “What does grammar do?” Grammar guides us to exactly what we mean to say much as a GPS guides us to exactly where we intend to go. Reaching an approximate destination is just as unsatisfactory as saying more or less what we mean.

The purpose of language is communication, but without knowledge of grammar we’re most likely to end up with confusion. Mastering grammar empowers us to communicate our ideas to others. If people cannot understand one another’s exact meaning, they are unlikely to reach agreement or to cooperate. No wonder when a couple has consistent misunderstandings we say that they just don’t speak the same language.

The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1–9) shows that language has the power to unite and strengthen us, and conversely, that the inability to understand one another fragments and weakens society. Educators know that sloppy language results in sloppy communication. Consider the examples below culled from radio and television reports and ads.

  • At Red Lobster the endless shrimp won’t last forever. Problem (contradiction in terms): If they’re endless, they must last forever, otherwise they’re not endless.
  • Female unemployment is five times higher than men in Saudi Arabia. Problem (incorrect comparison): You can’t compare unemployment to men.
  • If the US doesn’t defeat ISIS, another 9/11 could be eminent. Problem (confused homophones): Eminent means outstanding, successful. So, does the speaker admire this terror organization? Most likely not. What he/she really means is imminent (about to happen).
  • By responding to our appeal, you can acquire the tax capability of donation to a non-profit organization. Problem (heavy language): This is practically incomprehensible. Part of grammar mastery is clarity. So let’s look at this revision: Your donation to our non-profit organization can earn you a tax deduction.
  • This part of Alaska is closer to Russia than the rest of the U.S. Problem (non-parallel construction): Is it closer to Russia than to the rest of the U.S? Or, is it closer to Russia than the rest of the U.S. is?
  • The company wants to demonstrate what it can do to its advertisers. Problem (misplaced modifier): As it stands, it sounds like a threat! Fixing the misplaced modifier makes it an invitation to advertisers: The company wants to demonstrate to its advertisers what it can do.
  • Holland Springs water is pure and unadulterated. Problem (redundancy): Unadulterated means pure.
  • The new policy requires that military assistance is sent to Ukraine. Problem (needs subjunctive mood): The new policy requires that military assistance be sent to Ukraine.

For an explanation of each of these problems, see The Cooper Hill Stylebook. The Stylebook does not dictate how we should speak. Rather, it teaches standard, formal, American grammar and usage for expository writing. Thinking in print differs fundamentally from speaking informally. If a listener doesn’t understand precisely what we mean, he or she can always ask and can rely on clues in our body language. Speech, in other words, is an open form of communication: it can clarify meaning, correct inaccuracies in the course of conversation, and draw out subtle distinctions collaboratively. Not so written English.

Unlike the listener, the reader can’t question his “interlocutor.” So, the best writing obviates as far as possible the need for clarification. Clarity of expression is the cornerstone of excellent formal writing rewarded by schools, universities, and employers. Studying The Stylebook makes such excellence in writing possible for everyone. R.L.

Author: Michael Leppert

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