Grammar, online

Almost everyone makes typos from time to time. It happens, even if we remember to reread before clicking “post”, “send”, or “publish”. In the age of informal Internet communication, the occasional misspelled or omitted word can be expected, and therefore overlooked. Additionally, in certain contexts, capitalization can be forgotten, apostrophes can be omitted, and “unorthodox” abbreviations are accepted. However, I argue that despite the increasingly lax expectations of modern writing, grammar is as important as ever.

In the past few years, I’ve heard on multiple occasions that “grammar is dead”, perhaps a casualty of the evolution of spoken and written English. I do accept the fluidity and increasing flexibility of language, and I realize that this flexibility includes grammar. For a long time, I resisted the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun; recently, I’ve finally been convinced to accept it. (Personally, I continue to avoid it, and still often use the (perhaps archaic) “he” to refer to an unknown person of any gender, since I find “he or she” problematic for a number of reasons—but that’s a whole separate issue, beyond the scope of the simple point I hope to make here.) Nonetheless, I maintain that we cannot discard everything we learned in grade-school English classes.

Perhaps in the most informal of forums, grammar may be nearly irrelevant: the writer’s correspondents may simply not care. Other situations require much greater attention to grammar: in particular, these include articles expressing controversial ideas, arguments with which an average reader might be expected to disagree, and even those heated Facebook debates that (let’s be honest) never get resolved.

One may contest that the writer’s grasp of grammar has little to do with his understanding of the subject in question. I agree—in many cases, a poorly-phrased point may still be an excellent point. Unfortunately, grammatical errors may undermine an important point in a debate, or even an entire idea or argument, for several reasons.

First, the mistake may simply be distracting. I often find that I stumble on even innocuous errors (including typos) in an otherwise fluent and well-written piece. A reader will most likely overlook the mistake, but it remains an unnecessary distraction.

Second, and more important, the mistake might reduce the quality of the argument. Even if the writer is well-versed in the subject, grammatical errors (especially if they are frequent) could render the writer unqualified in the eyes of the reader. The reader might get the impression that the writer simply doesn’t care enough to write well and proof-read his work or, worse, that the writer is intellectually inferior: if someone can’t grasp the basic rules of English (assuming he’s a native English speaker), he might also be unable to understand the subtleties of a complex subject.

(One might accuse the reader of arrogance—yet even a non-judgmental person who wouldn’t explicitly reject an argument on the basis of a grammar mistake might be subconsciously reluctant to deeply engage with poorly-written arguments. But whether or not the reader really is at fault for “missing the point”, if you’re trying to make a controversial point, you shouldn’t give someone the ammunition to dismiss you as a writer.)

In general, a well-written, grammatically-correct argument will almost always be more effective than a poorly written one. When I read a poorly-written argument, I may give up long before I reach the end; if I do continue reading, I am instinctively more critical–even if the writer’s views already agree with my own. On the other hand, when I read an article espousing an idea with which I disagree or which is novel to me, if the style is eloquent from the start, I’m much more likely to read with an open mind: I assume that the writer is intelligent; I assume he has spent time considering the topic before coming to his conclusion; I assume he has reasons to support his views, and consequently, I read with the intent of genuinely understanding those reasons. Whether or not he is able to convince me by the time I finish reading, I will have gained a deeper understanding of the subject and a level of respect for the writer.


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