Following up on your recent column, how do you teach a young learner to know proper English, when is it important to use proper English, and when is it not necessary? I grew up among people who insisted on using grammar and syntax correctly, but I don’t know how to feel comfortable insisting on it with other people or with students. Your advice would be helpful!
T.A. / Boston
I’m sorry you grew up the way you did. There are few things more frustrating to children than being unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Picking on the grammar of a child who is trying to express themselves, rather than attending to their meaning, is frankly cruel. I expect you remember those experiences, which is why you’re not comfortable policing other people’s language.
Let’s start with a basic axiom, that the point of grammar is to render language intelligible. In other words, grammar exists to facilitate communication between people. And that’s the kernel of the answer to your question: What will improve your communication with this person in this moment? Focusing on what they are saying, or on how they are saying it?
Grammar matters when the “how” matters. Sometimes the “how” matters because you have no idea what the other person is going on about because they just spun some kind of rhetorical doughnut or bulldozed into a 17-clause pileup. I bet you don’t feel uncomfortable querying a person’s syntax in that situation — because you’re focusing on the “how” in order to connect, not to correct.
Sometimes the “how” matters because the communication goes beyond informal conversations between people who understand each other’s meaning, and needs to be crafted to certain standards or toward a particular goal. In your classroom, for example, papers and oral presentations are presumably expected to have correct grammar, but interrupting a student in a class discussion to get their subjects and verbs aligned, or what have you, would be counterproductive.
The same principle carries over to peer workplaces and volunteer or social groups, where slide decks or grant applications or brochures or mass emails need to be created. But here’s the thing — in those situations, grammar is only one of the communication elements that matter. You may have never spoken an undiagrammable sentence in your life, but are you equally expert at rhetorical devices, style rules for different disciplines and professions, document design, data display, and how to analyze the requirements of different mediums and audiences? Probably not. Freely take up the mantle of Grammar Guy when there’s an important message to be crafted, because every group needs one. But know that grammar is not the ne plus ultra of effective communication. You also need Layout Lady and the Graphics Guru — not to mention the Fresh-Eyed Folk, because our brains often simply don’t see our own errors or ambiguity.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.