Grammar is not one of my great interests. As both writer and editor, it is important that I have command of grammar, but, as far as I’m concerned, grammar is a secondary matter. It’s like enunciation in speech: it’s important because it facilitates that which really matters: the ideas being communicated. Yes, of course, it’s important to enunciate in speech: if you mumble, your listener has to ask “what did you say?” If your grammar is so poor that your reader cannot understand you, that’s a big problem. But if your grammar is imperfect while your ideas are perfectly comprehensible? Whatever. Grammar is secondary. The ideas are what matter.
When you write or speak, what really matters is the message that you want to convey. If you’re appreciative of someone and you write to them to express that appreciation, what really matters is that they recognize that you’re showing your appreciation. If you make a grammatical error in conveying that message—for example, you write “Thanks. Your great!”—it may or may not prevent the recipient from understanding your purpose in writing. If the recipient does understand that you meant “you’re great,” what is lost due to your grammatical error? The recipient of the poorly written thank you note might be disappointed by your poor grammar while also understanding your gratitude. But how much is really lost? (I ask that rhetorically, believing that not much is lost, while certain that some people will think that the decline of grammar is a terrible thing. But still, the grammar is secondary to the content.) I’m pretty sure that a lot of people agree with me logically but not on an emotional level: If you ask people explicitly whether content or grammar is more important, people will usually answer “content,” but if you ask them to evaluate a piece of writing, their complaints about grammar are quite likely to come first.
Saying that the message is what matters does oversimplify a little bit, because communicating ideas does not solely depend on the ideas themselves: communication of ideas is influenced by the audience’s view of the speaker/writer, and the manner in which ideas are expressed influences the audience’s views. The first of these concerns—how preconceptions of the speaker/writer influence evaluation of what is expressed—is outside of my discussion of the importance of grammar. (If an audience is predisposed toward the speaker/writer, they are more likely to accept the ideas being expressed, and if they are predisposed against that person, they are more likely to reject, a phenomenon that has been termed “reactive devaluation.” While this is interesting, it moves away from this essay’s specific focus on grammar.) The second concern—how the presentation of ideas influences the audience’s view of the speaker/writer—is a matter of concern for grammar, but I will still argue that it is secondary. It’s not trivial that poor grammar might lead to someone forming a poor opinion of you and your work. If the material you send to an editor at a journal or publisher is rife with grammatical errors, that will certainly influence their decision. But what if that material has only a few errors?
Here’s a question: would you rather be a person with good grammar and no ideas, or a person with good ideas and poor grammar? Which person would you rather have as a student? Which person would you rather hire as an employee? Which person do you think more capable of picking up the skill that they lack? Is it easier to get the good grammarian to have interesting ideas or to get the interesting thinker to develop good grammar? I’m simplifying to make a point about relative value: it goes without saying that it would be better to have both perfect grammar and great ideas, but on a more day-to-day, practical level, if you’re sitting down to write, and you have to ask yourself whether to focus your efforts on getting your grammar right or getting your ideas in order, which effort should you prioritize? My suggestion (obviously) is work on the ideas and to worry about grammar later (this is not to say that you don’t try to get grammar right, or that you don’t fix an error if you see one, but that your attention is not focused on grammar).
When I started writing this post, I was going to focus on one grammatical construction—passive voice—and discuss it, because I had been talking with a writer about how her advisor was strongly opposed to the passive voice. I have generalized, because the more general issue—the relative importance of grammar and content—is the more important issue. For a scholar or researcher, the ideas are first and foremost. They’re much harder to get in order, and they’re something that the scholar/researcher must do him/herself in order to be able to claim credit for doing original work. In fact, if a scholar/researcher can get the ideas in sufficiently good order, it’s perfectly acceptable matter of scholarly ethics to have an editor check and fix grammar. Indeed, if you’re publishing a scholarly monograph with a substantial publisher like a university press, they will have a copy editor review and fix your grammar. (This point can be taken as further evidence that an editor for a publisher will be more interested in the ideas of the proposal that you send than in your command of grammar: the editor/publisher will be planning on and budgeting for having someone fix minor grammatical errors. The editor/publisher will certainly have access to plenty of people who can write grammatical sentences; they will be looking for people who have good ideas to fill a book.)
The work of a scholar/researcher is first and foremost evaluated in terms of the content and ideas. If the ideas are good, they will get accepted and (hopefully) discussed. If the research is well designed and conscientiously executed, the results will be valuable, even if there are grammatical errors in the presentation. (Again, I don’t want to discount the role that grammatical errors play in getting work noticed and accepted.)
Last week, in a post of advice for dissertation advisors, I wrote about this general issue—about how the content is what matters for a scholar, not the grammar. This version of the same discussion is more directed at the writers than the teachers: when you write, where is your attention? Are you worrying about getting the ideas right or are you spending time and effort on grammar? For a lot of people, time spent worrying about grammar can take attention and energy away from the work that really does matter. Again, it’s the contents that matter most. Grammar is not trivial, but it’s not what the writing is about (unless, of course, you’re actually writing about grammar).
My advice for writers, especially for scholarly writers: write to clarify and explore your ideas. Don’t waste your time worrying about grammar. Yeah, I get it: Your professors will complain about bad grammar, and fixing that bad grammar will reduce complaints. Still, write to clarify and explore your ideas and to heck with good grammar. Once you’ve got the ideas in order, then work to get the grammar right, too. But first, get the ideas in order.