Understanding English grammar is hard – not just because there are lots of complicated rules, but because there are lots of complicated (and conflicting) guidelines. There isn’t one, standardised type of written English for all Anglophone countries. Instead, there are some broad principles, a few absolute rules, and lots and lots of room for personal preference.
Some people take this to mean that there are no rules, or that the rules don’t matter. Others take the personal preferences of some one person or organisation and declare these to be The Rules of English grammar. Both these approaches miss the fundamental purpose of language.
We use language to communicate. When writing (or speaking, or signing) we want to convey a message. It might be simple, factual information (‘We’re out of milk.’) or it might be a complex, layered message, loaded with subtext and emotion (‘You put an empty milk carton back in the fridge. Again.’) But whatever the message, we need use language to send it. And language needs rules just as much as it needs vocabulary. And then there’s the third element: Style.
The Art of the Edit
English is a rich and beautiful language, with lots of room for personal style. So, when is something ‘bad grammar’, and when is it a matter of ‘personal style’? I know, for example, that some people will be unhappy about my use of ‘so’ in that last sentence. Or should that be ‘previous sentence’?
And… this is where it gets hard. Because the answer is: it depends. Depends on the writer, the intended audience, the purpose of the communication, and much more besides. Understanding English grammar goes beyond learning a list of rules, not matter how complicated. Grammar is an art as much as a science, and using it effectively is a skill like any other.
Computers can learn the rules, but even the most sophisticated software struggles to understand context. An automated grammar-checker can give you options, but it can’t explain to you which of those options is appropriate for that exact situation. A human editor can make those judgement calls more accurately. A human editor can also talk to you: to explain choices, to ask questions and listen to your answers.
This is not to say that you need to hire a paid editor for everything you write. Your editor could be a friend, neighbour, or a member of your family. It could even be you, after you’ve taken a short break from your work. I’ll be doing a whole post on ‘editing hacks’ in the future.
Remember, the whole point is to convey your message clearly. The rules are there to be guides, not guards.
Better English posts every other Monday, sharing tips and tricks for honing your own skills. If you’d like to get direct, personal help with your writing, you can request a quote.