Do we need grammar?

By Geeta Padmanabhan

The simple answer is “Yes, we do,” though the issue itself is not simple.

When I say “Grammar”, I mean the basic structure of a language. I don’t mean the grammar vocabulary. You can write heart-warming, elevating, wise-cracking English without wondering whether you are possessive about adjectives or definite about articles. You don’t have to be able to whip out grammatical terms like Allomorphs or Apodosis. No one will ask you to name “some” and “any” as Quantifiers. Or “Walking” in the sentence Walking is a good exercise as a gerund.  It is not a crime if you don’t know how to describe words and structures in grammatical terms. But putting words and phrases in the wrong places is.

It is an age-old question. “Why is the sentence wrong if it conveys the meaning?” I have heard this for thirty years now. Mostly from students horrified to find their first test paper soaked in red ink. “You nit-pick!” is one of their mildest comments. My defense starts with the argument that their writing does not convey the meaning they intended.

When you speak or write, you try to make a connection with your audience. Don’t give me that “I write for myself” crap. I heard that in a blog camp I attended. “I’ll write what I want,” a young blogger thundered. “I have a right to express myself without being shackled!” Fine. Then you write in a small diary and bury it in six feet of snow. Don’t parade it where people can access it. When you write something in a public domain, you want friends and strangers to read it – the idea and the idiom in which it is served. You invite comments, you want appreciation. Yes, some of you want to provoke. Saying that you don’t is hypocrisy.

So you have a thought. You feel an irresistible urge to share it with others. You have a business. You want to tell the world about it. You have a grouse. You are hurting to give vent to it. You are sad, you are happy, you are thrilled – you want the world to know. That’s exactly why you should use the structure of the language properly. You want to reach your audience in a way you will be understood. Without ambiguity. What you write must be clear to the reader. Your language must form a smooth pothole-free bridge between what you write and what is understood. Error-free grammar is the conveyer belt. You do want that to happen, don’t you?

You can say, “If the reader does not understand English, it is not my fault.” Right. You are not responsible for the reader’s ignorance. But surely you write for at least a section of people who you think will understand! You put off those readers when you use faulty language. I don’t follow a sentence that goes, “Malls have now become the Indian version of a crude trade fair of the pestiferous doctrines and adrenalin highs, the temerarious teenagers of the western world are so pregnant with.” But I can click for the dictionary or the Thesaurus and find out the meaning of the words. These are legitimate words and the sentence has a structure that I am familiar with.

When you say, “He is loving Sangita,” or “I am standing on the bus stop,” I am confused. Some of the guys I taught were quite capable of standing on the bus stop and I would want them to get off at once. You change the tense of the verb, or use several tenses while describing a situation, you cause the same confusion. Did it happen today? Yesterday? Sometime in the past? Will it happen tomorrow? You merrily say, “Wait, I’ll explain you in a moment,” and I am aghast. Why would you explain me? Can you really explain anyone? When you inform me, “I laid there all night,” I don’t know what to think. What did you lay there all night? Hens lay eggs. What can you lay?

The worst is the spelling error. I am not hinting at the deletion of “u” in words like “colour” or the truncated “aluminum” for “aluminium” that is internationally understood. I am talking of sentences like these:
"The city bus service is highly erotic!"
“I don't want to loose you
.”
Chandra, however, said that the Indian Cricket League was not in "conflict" with BCCI but would instead "compliment" the Board by providing a rich talent reserve for the national team.” There is no way Chandra could have said this. Not in a hundred years can anyone imagine Chandra or the ICL ever “complimenting” BCCI.

Despite what my dismayed students said I am no purist. I am not here to argue that you should not end a sentence with a preposition or start one with “Because”. All I am saying is that what we write should be error-free. It should not confuse the reader. It must be clear, concise and to the point. Once you have the hang of writing in a way that reaches the reader without ambiguity, you can begin to experiment with words and phrases. It is like learning the basics of music before experimenting with ragas and swaras. Language evolves and with our sound grasp of the basics, we can contribute to this process.

But at all times we must see that the reader stays with us till the end.

Now, a small exercise that will summarize what I have been trying to say: Check out this letter.
"Dear Sir,
We are glad to tell you that we are manufacture of disappearing ink pen attached please check our disappearing ink pen catalogue with pricepictures and other details. Any interested itmes please kindly inform us
."

Do you have questions on grammar? Geeta Padmanabhan will tackle them. Send your questions to us via our feedback form.

2 thoughts on “Do we need grammar?

  1. Kipps

    This site makes sense and has been very useful for me.
    I have a blog and around fifty users. About forty don’t post anything, but two of the active members drive me crazy with their posts. The thing that annoys me most is the text language they use. I suppose it’s alright to use text language, but not when I personally tell them not to! I am one of those people who always goes and points out my friends punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. It’s not very nice but I can’t help it. You might have found mistakes in this comment, but it’s the level of writing a seventeen year old goes to… and I’m only twelve, so what do you expect? (I’m not trying to brag. 😳 )

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  2. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Hi Kipps, I completely understand your annoyance with text language. My objection to SMS-ish is, it is so arbitrary! Texters simply assume the world is following their whimsy contractions of English. So continue to be who you are, and keep writing the way do. You write well and you use standard English.
    I must confess I too have the habit of pointing out errors in people’s writing, but I am a teacher and I get paid for it. 😐
    So, you will understand when I point out the only error in your comment. The sentence “I am one of those people who always goes and points out my friends punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes” should be “I am one of those people who always go and point out their friends’ punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes.”
    The word “who” is plural because it stands for “people” and should be followed by plural verbs. Therefore, it is “go” and not “goes”. Again, it is “point” and not “points”.
    Since you are talking of people, the following pronoun should be “their”, not “my”.
    Finally, the word “friends” needs an apostrophe. It is “friends’ ” to show the mistakes are made by (belong to) a lot of your friends.

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