3.02.2006

Tools of the trade: Understanding how/why my thoughts become text

Grammar is a tool through which thoughts, seemingly random without order, are presented to an audience—even if the writer is the audience—allowing for maximum readability and comprehension. The masterful writer is enabled, not limited, by grammar, using many aspects of the topic—punctuation being most visible—to craft an essay, report, journal entry, etc. in such a way that the intended audience clearly understands the author’s message. I do not contend that with eloquent grammar a writer eliminates interpretation; whether the writer’s intent is symbolic or literal, grammar is the lens through which the audience perceives the message. The writer should never feel stifled by grammar unless he or she must communicate with a specific group or community. Even then rules are tools for effective communication and not a limitation.

While established rules for grammar are certainly the norm, and, as a result, the most effective form of communication, rules are merely guidelines and suggestions for readability’s sake. The writer is ultimately in control of grammar and style. For example, should the writer choose to eliminate punctuation from a piece, one should not contend that the writer has “bad grammar.” Of what grammar is one speaking if none exists? Rules are not necessarily “made to be broken,” but they are certainly not made as restrictive absolutes. Grammar is only necessary when the writer deems it necessary. That being said, rules for grammar make communication easier, and using audience appropriate grammar is essential for effective communication.

Learning to break the normative grammar rules at appropriate junctures is essential to clear writing. Knowing one’s audience is the key to grammar usage; rules make more sense and are better applied when one knows their origins. Different discourse communities, for example, have different vocabularies and, often, different rules for grammar and style. Additionally, communicating between socioeconomic barriers affects the type and style of grammar one uses. Between friends one might use slang, or on an instant message program, one of the more popular forms of communication in my time, one might not use capital letters, punctuation or even real words (l8r, brb, lol, rotfl, g2g, etc.).

Grammar rules are certainly contradictory based on audience, especially when one considers regional dialects. America and Britain essentially share the same language, but our grammar rules are somewhat different and sometimes in contrast e.g. we place our ending punctuation inside ending quotation marks and they place them outside. Knowing this simple change could mean the difference between authentic dialectical writing and looking like a grammatical invalid (within the community of readers).

Additionally, differences in grammar structure and style occur within regions depending on employment status or education. Journalists have a distinct style and very specific rules for structure. Associated Press style, the most commonly used style in journalism, is basically a formula for structure and usage. Indeed, the most stifling of grammar and style rules occurs in specific discourse communities using community specific jargon to advance their profession. Even with the level of restriction placed on said communities, the rules are still not absolute. Deterring from the rules might be considered “bad grammar,” but long time members of any discourse community soon learn that effective communication trumps specific style under any and all circumstances.

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