An Unexpected Reason Why Grammar Matters

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Christopher G. Fox

Undoubtedly, issues with grammatical correctness can undermine and diminish reader perceptions of the quality of written material. Grammatical mistakes can even erode readers’ belief in the trustworthiness of the underlying meaning.

Beyond its impact on audience perceptions, however, grammar has a critical function that often goes unnoticed. I’m referring to the syntactical level of grammar. When used correctly, it establishes greater clarity in relationships between concepts. Without necessarily doing so explicitly, this level of grammar contains essential information in its own right.

The reason? Syntax expresses relationality. That is, it specifies the relationships between and among entities, events, and concepts. Most readers do not map this out in their minds as they read because such relationships come through implicitly in the simple process of reading comprehension.

This concept may seem abstract, so let’s take a look at a few examples:

“He threw the book on the desk.”

While this may seem like a simple sentence, it offers a whole system of relationships: between a subject and a direct object of the verb, between the two things (book and desk) in the little world this sentence depicts.

Compare it to another simple sentence.

“He threw the book across the desk.”

With one subtle change in preposition, the system of relationships changes. The implications of the sentence change as well, but that would be a different topic. Comparing the two sentences highlights that a simple change in preposition recalibrates the world I am describing.

Sometimes, too, prepositions pair with verbs in specific ways. Consider how the meaning of “look” changes when used in phrases such as “look down on,” “look forward to,” “look out for,” etc. In these cases, the art of grammatical competency includes mastering the subtle ways that propositions affect the meaning of a verb.

But let’s move on with our current example.

“The sun rose and he threw the book on the desk.”

Now, we have moved on from prepositions and relationships between things. The conjunction “and” describes the relationship between events. It’s a purposefully neutral relationship. A reader might infer before and after or cause and effect, but the writer has not made a point of specifying either relationship. Sometimes, two unrelated things just coincide with nothing further to say about the matter.

Other times, the writer chooses to specify relationships.

“He threw the book across the desk, which infuriated his co-worker on the other side of it.”

In this final example, the relative pronoun “which” turns the action of throwing the book across the desk into an event that triggers a second event by infuriating a beleaguered colleague.

There’s a point to this musing about grammar and syntax. These little connective words do much more work than people realize. Essential elements of a writer’s meaning and logic occur within these relational words. While people tend to give all the credit to the nouns and verbs, the meat and potatoes, mastering relationality is the writer’s equivalent of molecular gastronomy.

Just like molecular gastronomy, working with prepositions, conjunctions, relative connections, and the like requires an entirely different level of craft from that of merely throwing a burger in a pan. It entails attending to the nuances and physical properties of what the writer works with (namely, words and ideas), and makes a big difference in what the writer serves up to readers.

Paying close attention to the way grammar expresses relationality makes for a better reader as well. But for writers, the more precise they are, the more likely they are to bring an intense focus to syntax, to this molecular-level aspect of constructing sentences, linking those sentences, and, finally, orchestrating their flow into a complete piece of writing. This craft and its effects make for an entirely different reason why grammar matters.

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