Many people cling tightly to the advice they remember from their high school English teacher: the stern prescriptions and proscriptions, the rules for writing. Good grammar, bad grammar, how to structure an essay. Cross one of these directives and they’ll say “But my high school English teacher taught me…”
There are two things I need to tell you about this, and I’m not going to be gentle because I’m damn tired of hearing this crap.
1. School teachers are not subject matter experts. They have their jobs because they have completed degrees in education, which means they know how to plan lessons, follow the curriculum, and generally keep a class moving through the system as it is supposed to. Your high school teachers probably knew more about their subjects than the average person, but don’t take your biology teacher’s word over your doctor’s, don’t argue with an engineer on the basis of what you recall from physics class, and don’t assume that your English teacher knew more about good grammar and good writing than anyone else you will ever meet. Those stern and simple grammar rules you had drilled into you should be stuffed into your yearbook and hidden in a box in your closet. Time to pay attention instead to how the writers you actually enjoy reading do it!
2. School teaching is geared to children and adolescents. Why do I even need to say this! Kids tend to have bad writing habits, and you can’t turn most of them into literary geniuses even with stern admonitions, so you just try to fix their worst habits. You give them training wheels. You get them to the introductory level with simple rules.
These are rules you’re supposed to outgrow. Well, some of your teachers may think they’re great rules for all times and places. But see point 1, right above. They’re entry-level directions for simple-minded dirty smelly balls of hormones.
There’s another thing about school, though, that you need to understand: One of its main functions is socialization. That includes teaching you to know your place in the social structure. Which means making sure you comply with authority, even when the authority’s requests are arbitrary. Actually, especially when the authority’s requests are arbitrary. That’s how they demonstrate their authority and you show your compliance: by following orders that may not even make sense. Of course you also learn important facts about the world in school. But you’re far more likely to get disciplined, suspended, or expelled for refusing to accept authority than you are for forgetting historical dates or mathematical equations.
Now here’s the really bad news: “Good grammar” is also mainly about maintaining a social order and enforcing compliance with authority. Oh, did you think it was about clarity? Sorry. Here’s a test: Say or write something that’s “grammatical” but unclear, and say something that’s clear but “ungrammatical,” and see which one gets people more upset. (I put scare quotes on “grammatical” and “ungrammatical” because even “ungrammatical” things have grammar, it’s just nonstandard.)
For instance, with no context, write “I shouldn’t have eaten that thing he made.” Your readers won’t know what thing is or who “he” is but they probably won’t scream at you. Now write “I shouldnt’ of eaten that pie my cousen made.” I bet your eye just twitches reading that, doesn’t it? Your readers will be… unkind.
It’s not about clarity. You understood it. It’s about following the rules and not violating the proper sense of order. The desire for tidiness has a moral colouring: untidy people are seen as bad, low-grade people. Transgressions of tidiness, for many people, invite social-dominance-based aggression.
I could go on about this, but I’ve written about it at length before. Here are some articles that amplify the points:
Does that mean you can just ignore grammar when you’re writing? No, of course not; you want to write things your readers will be glad they’ve read, and if the writing is messy it’s going to bother many of them. But good grammar won’t guarantee that your story is interesting or your writing engaging. I’m sure you’ve read many perfectly “grammatical” things that were dull as ditchwater, and I don’t doubt you’ve also read “ungrammatical” things that were quite exciting. (I’m put in mind of some love letters I received in my youth. They helped me understand how I had misplaced my priorities.)
I’ll tell you this: In 20 years of editing, I have consistently observed that it’s much easier to fix something with good structure and flow that has a few local mechanical errors than it is to fix something that’s grammatically “perfect” but is boring or tiring to read.
Oh, and one more thing: You’re more likely to make an ugly error by trying too hard than by not trying hard enough. Hypercorrection – overcorrecting something on the basis of a simplistic misapplication of a grammar rule – doesn’t even have the natural feeling of a garden-variety error. It’s stiff, unnatural, and wrong. And I see a lot of it in places where the writers get stuck on trying too hard. A large percentage of them is journalists (see what I did there? are is really the word to use, not is, but journalists often get that one wrong because they stop and think about it).