A plaintive question comes from "Kathryn in Creswell." She asks, "Why do we study grammar?"
Our correspondent identifies herself as a high school freshman. She lives in a small town in western Oregon a few miles south of Eugene. Last month, she and her classmates were assigned to consider the importance of "proper" grammar in their everyday and future lives. Her inquiry doubtless has been voiced by dubious students since young Cicero balked at learning the ablative case.
Kathryn in Creswell reasonably asks: "What is the point of writing more correctly than many of us speak?"
How should an aging editor respond? Perhaps a metaphor would provide one answer: Grammar is what she wears in a world beyond her living room. Kathryn is not going to drive to Portland dressed in a polka-dot bikini. She might complete her mission, but people would talk. And at a certain level, they would not say pleasant things.
Is good grammar a false value? At one level of human relations, it is certainly a lesser value — even a minimal value. The boy who drops out of school can live a happy life, and if he don't speak no good English, he pays the rent and, you know, it's like he treats his wife real good. He probably makes a greater contribution to society than some public officials one could mention.
What is the point of writing "correctly"? One point, surely, is to avoid being misunderstood. The English language offers us a hundred thousand words for everyday use and half a million more for special occasions. If we make even a small effort to capitalize on our good fortune, we can put these riches to work. We can write laws of precise application, sermons that touch our lives, instructions that lead to the proper assembly of a doll's house. But if we ignore the rules of grammar, we likely will draft ambiguous laws, preach soggy sermons and attach the dormer to the door.
Why should we study grammar? Well, for one thing, it is surely more fun than algebra. After all, once you've done one quadratic equation, you've done them all. The square root of 16 was 4 yesterday and it will be 4 forever.
But language is different. True, the subject of a sentence must agree with the predicate and, yes, a sonnet will always have 14 lines. Otherwise there are few ironclad "rules" of English composition. Freedom!
Ah, but a good writer's life is a life of disciplined freedom. (That is an oxymoron. You could look it up.) Successful writers, whether professional or amateur, have to live not only by the rules of grammar and spelling and syntax, but also by one rule that tops them all: Know Thy Reader! Or at least try to know thy reader. Our glorious English vocabulary is mostly a blessing, but we are blessed with many vocabularies, and they have to be used with some restraint. As Mark Twain once reminded James Fenimore Cooper, Indians should not speak in print like Oxford dons.
In promoting the study of grammar, am I being a snob? Nonsense! I'm being practical. English grammar has its awkward patches, e.g., "Who's there? It is I." For the most part, ours is a language of remarkably good order. Even the most irregular verbs have a pattern of irregularity. The distinction between "Kathryn has" and "Kathryn had" is a perfect, or at least a past perfect example. In speech or in writing, English is the greatest language ever devised for communicating thought.
And that's something to think about.