1. You’ve outgrown your high school grammar rules.

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:

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up

The ongoing demise of English

Does verbing impact the language?

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).

12 responses to “1. You’ve outgrown your high school grammar rules.

  1. Wow. What a Christmas gift. Thank you so much for this! And I can’t wait to see the next post (though I don’t see how you can top this!).

  2. I refuse to drop the Oxford comma. I will always use it. There was dairy farm back in Conn. that dropped the Oxford comma–there was a contract dispute and the farm was sued..they lost because they had dropped the comma–cost them two million bucks–that’s a lot just for losing a comma. Not me!
    Fred B

    • I’m an Oxford comma fan too. Who’s asking you to drop the Oxford comma? Did I miss something in Harbeck’s post? You sound defensive.
      I type all of my husband’s newspaper columns, and I always omit the Oxford comma – journalists don’t use it (a space and ink-saving measure).

      • In one of the posts a few weeks ago the comma was missing and was going to write but did not–got busy. I just received a short story from a fellow in a Writer’s Group I belong to and that entry was missing a comma.
        What gets me is in the same news article the ‘reporter’ will do both.He or she will use the comma and then later they will leave it out. Weird.

      • Many people don’t pay much attention to commas. They’ve never heard of an Oxford comma.They use punctuation without thinking about it. ( I’m an English professor with 30 years of teaching experience.)

  3. “2. School teaching is geared to children and adolescents. Why do I even need to say this!” Shouldn’t that be “2. School teaching is geared to children and adolescents. Why do I even need to say this?!”
    Just sayin’. ; )

    • A question mark combined with an exclamation mark is fun but nonstandard. If I were Harbeck’s editor and having one of my stickler days, I would have used just the question mark. But today I’m appreciating his lively writing, and I would have left his sentence as is, with just an exclamation mark.

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  5. I am an Aerospace Engineer – retired. I worked until I was 80. I have enjoyed these 7 years of retirement. I teach a constitution class to local adults for FREE. In Feb. I will be teaching the last three Monday mornings starting at 7:00 to 8:45 am. On Feb 23rd I will be teaching 6 hours to adults..keeps me busy (and awake).

  6. My first rule is ‘there are no rules, just conventions’. The second is ‘make it work for the situation you’re writing in’. I am amazed to discover that good grammar can lead to poor writing. Never seen it but will live in hope.

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  8. juliacochrane

    If you’re using the non-Oxford comma style, you can still insert a comma before the “and” if it removes confusion.

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