That question occurred to me after reading a post by the excellent timethief, about grammar checkers.
I very strongly believe, that the best route to impeccable – or at least acceptable (I’ll clarify this shortly) – grammar, after my time as an adult literacy tutor, is to pay attention to those who are trying to pound it into your head in school.
Learned at that age, it will be as natural as breathing for the rest of your life. You might not actually remember the rules themselves – I certainly don’t – but how they work will be hard wired. And trust me, it’s very much easier that trying to learn the same thing as an adult.
However, for me, grammar checkers are something of a bête noir, not least because the grammar checker in Microsoft Word is frankly bizarre, and represents no version of British English that I’m familiar with, and the first thing I did, when I started writing for publication online, was disable it – and consign that bloody paperclip to oblivion!
Spelling checkers are altogether different, and in my view, if you want people to read what you write, failure to use one should be a capital offence. As should the inability to punctuate – if you have a blank spot where punctuation should be, please, invest in Lynn Truss’s book “Eats shoots and leaves”.
But a few tips – if you’re not sure what to do with a colon or semi colon, play safe and start a new sentence (the world won’t end if you start a sentence with and or but, incidentally – sometimes you just have to). Don’t scatter exclamation points like confetti, use one, and only in dialogue (except, and rarely, for emphasis, elsewhere), and remember that an ellipsis has just 3 spaced dots… The number is not up for grabs, it is, always and forever, 3.
But back to that question in the title: Is a grammatically perfect blog post essential? In my view, and I know some of you will consider this heresy, but just hold off on the green ink for a while, no, it isn’t. Your prose doesn’t need to be grammatically impeccable – unless you want it to be – but it will flow so much more enjoyably, for the reader, if you lighten up a little and bend the rules just a tad.
The ability to write a grammatically perfect blog post, or anything else for that matter, is important, because without that, you won’t know how to bend the rules effectively.
It would be useful to consider two of my favourite authors at this point John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, et al), and Stephen King, who surely needs no introduction.
Both immensely readable – and very different. Wyndham’s grammar is impeccable, King’s style is colloquial and deceptively simple, but it sure as hell gets the job done. Ask yourself which style is the more fluid, and draws you in more easily. I’m willing to bet that most people will opt for King.
King, of course, taught English, so he knows the rules and how to break them for maximum effect, without jarring the pickiest of readers. Wyndham, a child of his time, wrote with perfect clarity, and grammar, but he simply lacked the immediacy of King. Or, if you prefer another genre, John Sandford, a journalist who writes (mostly), crime fiction. In addition, most of Wyndham’s characters spoke as I assume he did – except for the lower orders, who were forced to speak as though they were Victorian costermongers!
Neither King’s nor Sandford’s grammar is perfect – were it to be so, it would feel clunky. Just like the phrase “were it to be so”. It’s grammatically correct, but most people would render it as “if it was”. It’s wrong, and would have pedants frothing, but it works (nothing wrong with being a pedant, by the way – I’m one, I confess – but you need to know when to take a step back).
Sometimes, I take that step back, and ask myself should I go with “were” or “was,” and mostly I’ll go with was for two reasons – because, even though it’s technically wrong, it’s how most people speak, and so it’s what they subconsciously expect to read.
Finally, while it’s nothing to do with grammar, someone once said, and I can’t remember who, that you should never use a $10 word when a 5cent one will do – in other words, avoid needlessly long, polysyllabic, words – and that’s a very good rule to bear in mind. In addition, short sentences and short paragraphs make text very much easier to read on a screen.
As, indeed, do 5cent words.