While suffering through high school math classes, I used to slouch in my desk chair as the teacher scrawled out long, blackboard-spanning explanations of quadratic equations. And I’d think to myself, I’m never going to need to know this. I suspect every student must feel this way at one point or another. It’s a common sentiment. Perhaps you loved math, but you felt this way about chemistry or biology or world geography. (But probably not English; this is a writing blog, after all.)
It turns out I was mostly right. I use a fair bit of math on a regular basis, but for the most part it was all covered in junior high. Or earlier. There are the basics—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—and then there are fractions, decimal points, percentages, and ratios. My job requires these skills… as does grocery shopping, for that matter. But never again will I need to solve for Cos or Sin or Tan. Thank goodness for that! I only barely scraped by my provincial math exams.
Other people do need to know about trigonometry, though. Among them are mathematicians, teachers, scientists of many stripes, architects, and engineers. I might reminisce with my writing friends about the general uselessness of my high school math education, and they might agree with me on the aforementioned points. To my specific experience and interests, I only require the math essentials and no more.
But the world needs people who are gifted at math, so it would be unconscionable of me to make a sweeping statement to the effect of “Math is overrated.” Of course it’s not. I don’t need much of it, but our modern understanding of mathematics helps the world go round.
What’s my point? Earlier this month, I encountered an article on the CBC entitled Is grammar overrated?. I won’t lie to you: this headline irritated me. I would encourage you to check out the piece, but in case you don’t bother, the general summation is that the rules of grammar are capricious and constantly evolving, and therefore grammar isn’t terribly important. The author argues in favour of universally relaxing the rules of grammar usage.
Well. As an editor and a writer, I disagree with this conclusion—though I do acknowledge that the rules of language are often capricious. I can’t speak for all languages, but English is full of some pretty random conventions. And yes, I also acknowledge that grammar constantly evolves; language is a living construct, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting and wonderful. The changing nature of language lends authority and historical weight to manuscripts from different eras. If you have a passion for etymology, then the evolution of language probably fascinates you to no end.
Despite this, grammar is pretty important—mostly because having a standard (even a shifting standard) helps us all to be better communicators. If language isn’t calibrated to optimize communication, I don’t know what it should be used for. I mean, isn’t that the whole point?
If the only kind of writing you do is confined to Facebook posts and shopping lists, I think it’s safe to say that no one should pick on you for not knowing how to use a semicolon. Perhaps the non-word “stupider” is part of your vocabulary; I don’t think that makes you stupid. Perhaps you spell “misspell” with only one “s.” C’est la vie. Moving on. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
But if your goal is to be a professional novelist, then your standard of English education is much higher than that of the average Joes and Janes of the world. If I’m working with you as your editor, then your grammar usage will concern me a great deal. That’s what I’m getting paid for, and what you need. Authors needn’t be perfect, of course, but they should know how to use punctuation correctly, just like an engineer needs to be able to calculate the precise area of a heptagon if needed. It would be difficult to take seriously an astronomer who didn’t know the distance from the Earth to the sun (also known as the astronomical unit, or AU), or a cartographer who didn’t know where Austria was. Can you imagine a theologian who had never heard of Job before? Of course not.
In the same way, it’s hard to take seriously a writer who doesn’t understand how to make their subjects and verbs agree. If you write a book with one run-on sentence after another, your reader isn’t going to understand what you’re trying to say. If you write a book in which you don’t use any paragraph breaks, you’ll be communicating very ineffectively (this example may sound improbable, but I encounter it at least two or three times a year).
If your goal is to be an expert in anything, you have a responsibility to achieve a high level of specific education in your field. And if you’re a writer, that means you’ve got to master grammar, including spelling and usage. It won’t happen overnight, and you may need an editor to help you out, but there’s no avoiding it.
So, is grammar overrated? Let’s just say that grammar may not be a going concern if you’re an auto mechanic. But if you’ve got any serious writing ambitions, even as a memoirist, I’d say it’s time to brush up.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.