There Are No Grammar Rules – Only Conventions

When students learn English, they master hundreds of grammar rules. Always insert a comma after an introductory phrase. Don’t connect two independent clauses with a comma. No sentence fragments.

But who makes these rules? And should you care about them?

In some areas of life, rules are created and enforced by people with authority. In boxing, it’s the referee. In politics, it’s Congress and the courts. At home, it’s your parents (probably :).

But in language, there is no referee, no final authority with the power to say what’s allowed.

Does this mean, then, that you can ignore all the grammar that you learned in school – that anything goes?

Not exactly. After all, the point of writing isn’t to throw letters on a page (though that can be kind of fun). If you’re writing for other people, you’re probably trying to communicate – to connect, to share, to persuade.

To do those things, you typically need to find common ground with your readers. (You can be a beautiful poet in English, but if you’re audience only reads Chinese, it won’t matter.)

This is where grammar comes in. Grammar is common ground for people who share a language. It’s the set of conventions we use to reduce confusion and ensure that our meaning comes across as smoothly as possible.

And this, ultimately, is why tests like the SAT, ACT, and GRE include so many grammar-related questions. It’s not that the test-makers are trying to be “grammar bullies.” They just want to make sure that students are capable of communicating according to the conventions of English that are in place right now.

Those conventions change, of course. Our most imaginative writers, speakers, and musicians are always inventing new, creative ways to express themselves. (In her most recent novel, Zadie Smith splices commas over and over – and it works.) In other words, grammar rules don’t get written at the cutting edge. As a result, they often feel a little stiff and outdated.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. They are. If you want to express yourself in new and innovative ways, it helps to master the ways that people express themselves right now. Otherwise, you may find yourself talking to an audience of one – yourself. Remember, there’s no judge in the court of language – but there’s also no avoiding the judgment of your readers.