Grammar: a system of rules that determines (1) how the forms of words are made (e.g., swim, swam, swum), and (2) how words fit together to fit sentences.
The issue of how much attention to give grammar is perplexing. On the one hand, attention to correct grammar‑‑and to spelling and usage‑‑can seem terribly misplaced. After all, the main purpose of writing is to make meaning, isn't it? Worrying too much about grammar is worrying about minutiae and can bring on writer's block.
On the other hand, we know that it’s important. In fact, it used to get a lot more attention in formal education than it does now. Consider, for example, the daily schedule which Guilford students followed in 1847:
5:00 a.m.— Rise, make beds, wash
6:00 a.m.— Grammar
7:00 a.m.— Breakfast
8:30 a.m.— Classroom studies
11:30 a.m.— Classes end for morning
12:00 p.m.— Lunch
2:30 p.m.— Classes resume
5:00 p.m.— Classes end for day
6:00 p.m.— Dinner
9:00 p.m.-- Lights out
Grammar before breakfast!?! No wonder that in medieval classrooms, when grammar was even more prominent, the subject was personified as the goddess Grammatica, who was pictured as a severe old woman holding a scalpel and a large pair of pincers in her left hand. In her right hand, which was close by her side, she grasped a bird by the neck, its mouth wide open as if in a gasp or squawk.
It will probably surprise you to learn that in the earliest universities, grammar was one of only three subjects you studied to get a bachelor’s degree. The other two were rhetoric and logic. Together these formed the “trivium” (from Latin tri “three” + via “road, way”).
We should hasten to point out that “grammar” study meant more than memorizing punctuation rules. It chiefly involved the study of Latin, and because Latin was the main language of learned culture, grammar came to become synonymous with learning in general.
Still, however, study of language necessarily involves study of its rules, and that takes us back to the opening question—why should this be important?
Here are two reasons that should matter to you.
(1) The fact is that readers expect correct grammar. Whether it’s fair or not, they will use it to judge you as a writer.
It is well known, for example, that employers discriminate against job candidates whose applications contain bad grammar even when the jobs applied for would not seem to require much grammatical knowledge at all‑‑jobs such as auto mechanic and welder.
Because grammar embodies a set of logical relationships among the elements you're writing about, incorrect grammar likely means fuzzy logic or fuzzy thinking. Moreover, error signals to the reader that you have not taken enough care with your manuscript. If your grammar is sloppy, how is the reader to know that you haven't been sloppy with your research or your conclusions, too?
Correctness is a convention that the educated community expects. When you write professionally (i.e., as part of your profession), you will be held to a high standard, just as you will be in your classes at Guilford.
(2) Grammar helps the reader understand your text.
One way of looking at grammar is as "meta‑discourse"‑‑that is, as a separate level of meaningful cues which are embedded in the text to help the reader maneuver through the discourse. John Trimble, in Writing with Style, notes that "the big breakthrough for the novice writer . . . will occur at the moment he begins to comprehend the social implications of what he's doing." If you don't use the proper road signs which grammar represents‑‑or worse, provide the wrong ones‑-you are ignoring Trimble's "social implications." And the reader will pick this up in a minute.
Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples of grammar-as-meta-discourse: above all these toys are sports items.
In this first example, we could begin by noting that without capitalizing “above” and putting a period after “items,” we have no way of knowing that we’re dealing with a sentence rather than a random string of words. Capital letters and periods provide pieces of information which eliminate that ambiguity.
To take it one step further: are the toys above the sports items (in spatial terms) or are they sports items as well as being toys? It’s probably the latter, because we know that if the writer intended us to interpret the toys as also being sports items, s/he would’ve put a comma after “all.” This comma functions as meta-discourse because it helps tell us by its presence or absence how we are to read the sentence.
Imagine what it would have been like to have been a reader in ancient times before there was punctuation (or paragraph breaks or small letters—everything was capitalized).
Another example of grammar as meta-discourse, this time from history: refrain not to kill King Edward is right.
This is the message that a pair of waiting would-be assassins received in 1327 from the man who had commissioned the assassination and had put the assassins on alert. If you were the assassin, how would you interpret it? There are two very different possibilities, as the assassins must have realized in a cold sweat. Would it be “Refrain—not to kill King Edward is right”? Or “Refrain not—to kill King Edward is right”? Your life would depend on whether you guessed right.
One final example. And here we see what happens when you leave readers to their own devices. In this case, where there are two very different possibilities of interpretation, readers may fill in their own meta-discourse. Which possibility would you choose?
woman without her man is nothing