One of the phrases I hear the most from students coming to The Writing Center is, “I’m terrible at grammar.” What’s highly interesting about this phrase is two things: 1.) Generally speaking, students say “grammar,” but actually define that term as including “grammar, spelling, and punctuation,” and 2.) In my experience, 9 out of every 10 people who have said that really aren’t bad at it at all. It seems like, for a variety of reasons, this idea of “proper grammar” has become some sort of multi-headed beast in peoples’ minds; an unconquerable set of rules, punctuation marks, spelling, etc., that they just don’t have a chance at mastering. FALSE.
Being good at grammar isn’t something that everybody just inherently knows; it’s like a muscle that grows over time as you continually learn more about how to strengthen it. Grammar also isn’t this set of rigid rules designed to make writing difficult, but rather the resource that helps you to communicate well through your writing. In reality, it’s no different from the chemist using the right beaker to successfully conduct the experiment, or the violinist who must tune their strings to the correct pitch before a performance.
Additionally, using proper grammar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crafting flourishing sentences of “erstwhile’s,” “thou’s,” and “fortnight’s.” In fact, using it correctly doesn’t even guarantee that it’s a good sentence. What actually makes writing interesting and enjoyable to read is largely based on the content. Grammar, then, is the vehicle that helps you deliver those important words to your audience. Think of it like this: grammar is not a set of strict rules looking for every opportunity to trip you up between subject-verb agreements, or using the proper tense. Instead, it is a set of tools that helps you get your message to the audience. For example, if you have an idea for a fantastic play or a witty short story, grammar isn’t your enemy here. It’s the resource you use that helps you to translate what you see in your mind to words on paper in a way that allows other people to understand what you’ve envisioned.
Ultimately, the term “proper grammar” seems to evoke this idea of rules upon rules that just aren’t easy or enjoyable to use. Then again, what chemist is going to say that his favorite part of experimentation is the beakers? What musician will say that for them, it’s all about tuning up the instrument? This applies just as much to writers. Proper grammar isn’t the reason people write; we do it to tell stories, to inspire audiences, to create something meaningful, and so much more. Grammar is simply the tool that allows us to share our ideas through writing.