The usefulness of good grammar

Why is good grammar important?

In the Indian mainstream media at least, it appears that readers won’t penalise reporters and editors for imperfect use of grammar and punctuation. To be clear, they will notice – and many will avoid – bad writing; at the same time, readers are unlikely to credit articles that got their grammar and punctuation pitch-perfect. In short, good grammar doesn’t seem to improve return-on-investment but bad grammar reduces it.

This isn’t surprising: English has always been much of India’s second language, especially among its middle class. The premium placed on perfect grammar is much lower than that placed on simply being fluent with the language at the intermediary level. In most instances, in fact, the value of better grammar is and remains an unknown-unknown.

However, what I like most about perfecting the use of grammar and punctuation is that doing so provides a sort of polish to the text that greatly improves its readability. This is somewhat like the attention Apple pays to the UX of its iPhones: it isn’t just that the hardware-software synergy is excellent or that the designs make the UI look exquisite; it is that, like good grammar, Apple ensures the tiniest details are in line with the overarching experiential philosophy, so that the user moves with equal ease through different parts of the phone. In the same way, without good grammar, the text becomes a bit of a bumpy ride.

It’s the cost of this bumpiness that seems to determine whether or not better grammar is linked to the publisher’s stature.

Within the iPhone metaphor, design perfection is closely associated with the iPhone’s reputation as a premium item, the same way the appropriate use of language is associated with publications like The Baffler and The New York Review of Books (but not The New Yorker, for reasons described here), which bank on literary as well as narrative correctness to appear, and read, classy.

However, this aesthetic is seemingly confined to mainstream publications in the West and, in India, to magazines that are okay with presenting the sort of English that is as classy to the discerning reader as it seems elitist to the one who hasn’t spent a lifetime among books. To the latter, text laden with the uneven use of grammar isn’t bumpy reading at all as much as something that reads just fine. So the publisher that publishes such writing isn’t penalised for it.

Then again, is it fair to judge grammar’s value according to its financial implications? It makes sense with iPhone and design: a flawed UX is quite likely to precipitate a decline in sales, and sales is what Apple – like any corporation – lives for. It also makes sense if you have a publisher like Times of India in mind. But how do things work at The Wire?

As with any nonprofit news publication that runs on donations from readers, good grammar and punctuation offer The Wire a way to render our articles more gratifying as long as the exercise remains cost-effective. But when it comes in the way of a more valuable target, such as higher volume, it becomes secondary if only because our resources are painfully finite. To prevent this from happening in the longer run, we must couple the quality of writing with the notion of public interest itself. So we come to the more important question: could good grammar be in the public interest?

At first, good grammar seems almost unnecessary, indulgent even, until you consider the connections between good writing and thinking. Being able to compose complex sentences anticipates room to compose complex thoughts and allows us to assimilate complex ideas. We may not need language itself to think, but insofar as we wish to instrumentalise the communication of complex ideas as a weapon against anti-intellectualism, we must become and remain fluent with how grammar and punctuation allow us to nearly exactly communicate semantic formations constructed by the mind.

In fact, it would be safe to dispense with the “nearly” as well: we cannot communicate ideas more complicated than what our language affords us. Therefore, the more versatile our language is and the better we are able to use it, the more opportunities we give ourselves to accommodate new ideas and fight against bad ones.

There are limitations, of course, such as with a lot of academic writing these days that is dense for density’s sake. But short of that, not making efforts to improve the way we use the rules of grammar and the opportunities of punctuation could mire us deeper and deeper, in a world becoming more vast by the day, in knowledge that is only becoming more stale and – as many scholars have recognised – in attitudes more anti-intellectual. Of course, not everything there is to learn has to be so complicated and most of us will almost certainly expend our lives still exploring the simpler realms, but in the overarching scheme, exposing ourselves to the more challenging aspects of language will equip us to go wherever we may as a society.

This is also an admittedly circuitous justification for the continued use of good grammar – given humankind’s now-famously short attention span – and one that we may not always remember on the level of the day-to-day. But just as with good grammar, the usefulness of good grammar only shows itself with prolonged use, and this should be easier to remember.

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.