Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important”

The Great Grammar Debate

It’s a normal occurrence in a writing center appointment. I will ask, “what would you like to work on today?”  The response typically includes — or starts with — the word “grammar.”

I want to stress, first and foremost, that this is okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting your college paper to contain Standard American English grammar, especially considering how it generally is part of your grade. That said, many writing assignments have grammar and mechanics as part of a paper’s grade, but it often accounts for roughly 10 percent or less of that paper’s grade. That means there’s another 90 percent of that paper to work on, so why wouldn’t we talk about that, too? Put another way, a paper can have absolutely perfect grammar and still fail miserably.

What I’m getting at here is that there is a lot more to the writing center (and writing, period) than just grammar. Coming to the writing center to only work on grammar is like going to a supermarket to only buy a pack of gum. Sure, you can get it and go home, but since you’re there anyway, is there really nothing else there that you need? And is that really the most important thing to you at that moment?

The point of most writing assignments is to convey some kind of information. It might be about arguing a point, or explaining research you’ve done, or just explaining your personal experiences. Whatever the case, your goal is to make your reader understand what you’re trying to say to them. Grammar is certainly a part of that, but it’s just that: a part, and not even the most important part. My philosophy on the matter is that grammar is only bad if it clouds the meaning of what is being said.

For example:

if i was to do a sentence that ignores the grammer it may be a little more harder to read but i bet you know what it means anyway right?

See? That’s ugly, but it’s only ugly on the surface. That sentence suffers from errors in capitalization, punctuation, spelling, structure, and subject-verb agreement. And that may not be all, I just stopped counting mistakes. But are any of those broken grammar rules affecting the meaning of the sentence? Do you not know what it says?

Grammar rules are odd, and change so often, sometimes the easiest way to make a point clear is to break them. I’m not advocating that these rules should be broken, of course. They’re important, and they do help to preserve meaning. But grammar is not the most important thing to focus on, especially if you’re able to convey the meaning you’re going for anyway.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how most grammar rules work, and I admit that as both a writing consultant and a professional writer. I’m a professional sportswriter who has been getting paid to write for about two years now. But if you were to ask me why sentences need to be capitalized or what exactly constitutes a run-on sentence, I would tell you I’m not really sure. So I’m living proof, then. Understanding grammar does not equal good writing, or vice-versa.

What good is a grammatically correct paper that doesn’t have a clear topic? Who cares if a comma is used correctly if the sentence it’s used in is unclear? Is semicolon usage more important than having your sources cited properly?

And most importantly, if The Writing Center is here to help with all of that all at once, why wouldn’t you take advantage of… all of that?

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