Grammar. Is there any single word more likely to evoke a yawn or perhaps a groan? The apparently arbitrary collection of nonsensical rules for sentence construction has long been the bane of every schoolchild. I can only imagine that, 30,000 years ago or so, prehistoric boys clad in animal skins rolled their eyes as their elders drilled rules like “Ugh after Grunt, except before Oogh.”
I, like pretty much everyone else, grew up believing that the rules of grammar were indeed completely arbitrary, existing for no other purpose than to torture children. Not long ago, I decided to put aside my loathing for the subject and finally learn good grammar.
Imagine my shock when I discovered that the rules aren’t arbitrary at all. Instead they are carefully assembled to serve a singular purpose: maximizing the effectiveness of human communication.
The Elements of Style is the wonderful little book (really more of a pamphlet, weighing in at a mere 105 pages) that opened my eyes on this subject. If you have any interest in becoming a good writer - or learning to communicate well with any sort of language - I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The book presents a series of guidelines, each accompanied by a short (a few paragraphs) explanation and some examples. One of these brought a particular moment of enlightenment for me. It is at once an advertisement and example of the principle it represents, so allow me to reproduce it in full here:
“Omit Needless Words”
Yep, that’s it. This is really the heart of grammar. Omitting words which are unnecessary streamlines your writing, which is the heart of effective communication.
Without even knowing any of the specific rules, good grammar can always be spotted by one of two obvious virtues: 1. making the sentence clearer, 2. shortening the sentence, or (very often) both.
That’s right, the purpose of grammar is to allow you to spend fewer words expressing the same idea. This allows you to deliver your message in a way that is punchier, easier to read, and less demanding of you and your audience’s valuable time.
As a quick example, take this sentence: “Joe was really tired because he spent the entire day walking.” By improving the grammar we might get: “Walking all day exhausted Joe.” Besides being shorter and easier to read, it’s more forceful, too. Now I finally understand why my English teacher always insisted that we avoid the passive voice.
The book also points out that grammar is not decided by any central authority, and the rules do change with time. So what is good grammar today may not be in fifty years, but one thing you can count on is that grammar almost always evolves in the direction of more effective communication.
Does that mean that in another generation or two “4″ will be the correct spelling of “for” and “u” will be the correct spelling of “you”? Quite possibly.