Happy National Grammar Day: Why Grammar Matters

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"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" -- Isaac Asimov

"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" -- President George W. Bush

In the interest of full disclosure, let me preface this article by stating that I am something of a grammar geek. I’m the kind of person who takes five minutes to read a three sentence e-mail, because I can’t distract myself from the extraneous comma used in the first complex sentence when the author combined a dependent and an independent clause with a conjunction, or because a noun is placed entirely too far from it’s modifier.

Nevertheless, even for people that aren’t interested in the complexities of the English language, proper grammar still plays a vital role in our daily communication. And yet, there seems to be less and less people who care about grammar. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Asimov’s assertion is just as true today as it was in his time. The public continues to embrace their ignorance, and deep seeded fear of intelligence, with pride, and look down with disdain on anyone who tries to fight against the tide of anti-intellectualism.

Who cares? You understood what I meant.

This is the most common defense I hear from professionals who fail to write an e-mail that wouldn’t get passed a third grade teacher. Their contention is that, so long as the message was received, whether the grammar was correct is moot. For them, communication is all about relaying information as fast as possible.

What they are failing to realize is that, while their e-mail of, “thx for the info its exactly what i needed.” does get their point across, it also conveys another message: that they do not care about how they are perceived by other people. Despite the overwhelming popularity of “texting grammar”, the business environment is not the place for it, especially when communicating with clients or others outside of the company. When I come across a sentence like the one above, I immediately assume either one: they are to lazy to write out a coherent message or two: they are ignorant of how to compose a coherent message. Neither of which is an impression you want to make on your co-workers, much less your bosses or clients.

Language evolves. Get over it.

I will readily admit that language evolves. I could care less about legitimate word evolution. In fact, it’s one of the things about being a language nerd that I find fascinating. Take the word “decimate”, for example. How exactly did we go from a word that means destroying 10% of something to have it mean destroying nearly all of something? Or the word “awful”. It’s just logical that, examining the roots “awe” and “full”, the word “awful” would mean “worthy of awe.” How, then, did it become a way to only describe something terrible?

What I can’t “get over” is the evolution of words due to ignorance. The penultimate example of this is, of course, “literally”. For years, people have been incorrectly using this word to the point that it now has an alternate definition that is literally the exact opposite of its primary definition. We already had a word that meant the opposite of “literally”: “figuratively”. However, due to ignorance and laziness, for all intensive purposes, the English language no longer has any way to say, “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” It is now impossible to say someone died laughing, and accurately convey the message that they actually are now deceased due to excessive mirth.

Our children isn’t learning.

Nearly a decade ago now, our family moved to Colorado from Indiana. When we were house shopping, one of the most important criteria was the school system. After alot of research, first narrowing down the school district and then the exact school, we moved into a house that was considerably more expensive than what we were wanting, because of the school’s our children would be attending. Rated as one of the top in the country, we were sure that our kids were receiving the best public education we could provide for them.

Fast forward a few years, and I was casually going through my son’s homework. I rarely did this, because both of my boys were straight “A” students, so I figured they must be learning fine. I was appalled to find at least a half a dozen grammar errors in a paper that was marked with a “4”. (In elementary school, grades were on a four point scale, with a “4” meaning that the student was exceeding expectations of a student at that point in their school career). The worst part is that the assignment was for their Language class. I can somewhat forgive a teacher for not pointing out grammar errors in something like a Science report, but to not correct a kid who, as we came to find out, was habitually making the same grammar errors over and over was, in my view, a simple dereliction of their jobs as teachers. It was at that point that we realized, despite the quality of the school system, it was up to my wife and I to insure our kids were being educated.

There are plenty of boogymen out there to blame: budgets, standardized tests, teacher training. The fact remains, though, that unless we as a society stress the importance of language skills on our children, all the money and training in the world is not going to make a difference. If we continue to revel in our own ignorance, and glorify anti-intellectualism as some kind of mark of personal independence, our country is going to loose our standing in the international community and continue the downward slide into global insignificance. Literally.


Author’s note: OK, this was much harder to write than I expected, and I have no doubt that whoever edited this article is sitting at their kitchen table with a large glass of Scotch, questioning my future as a contributor here. In case you missed it, there are no fewer than 25 grammar errors in the above article and at least two spelling errors. I sincerely hope that as you read this article, you thought less and less of me as a writer. That’s kind of the point I was trying to make.

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