Love it or hate it, grammar is something that every person who writes anything has to deal with.
There are three main types of grammar. Firstly, there is prescriptive (or traditional) grammar. This is the grammar that you were likely taught in grade school—where to put commas, when to capitalize words, and so forth. In other words, it is prescribing a way to write. However, there are, as is perhaps obvious, problems with this approach. Indeed, it does not allow for any variation, does not accommodate for dialects, and does not always accurately describe language. As a result, it may be no surprise that many of the rules of descriptive grammar were made up (as in, not based on how language was actually being used) in the 18th century.
The second type of grammar is descriptive (or structural) grammar. In many ways, it helps solve the problem that prescriptive grammar does not describe language. While prescriptive grammar aims to tell how language should be, descriptive grammar aims to describe how language is. However, descriptive grammar does not account for the actual meanings of words. I can say “The dog laughed at the man eating the sun, which smelled of hotdogs.” This sentence is correct in the functioning of the words: The correct parts of speech are used in the correct ordering to form a sentence; however, it makes absolutely no sense.
Lastly, there’s generative (or transformational) grammar. This aims to examine sentences as they can be moved and rearranged. I can say, “As she was running down the hall, the girl tripped on her shoelace.” or “The girl tripped on her shoelace as she was running down the hall.” Both of these are correct and generally display the same meaning; I have simply moved one of the clauses to a new position, which is (in part) what generative grammar seeks to encapsulate. Generative grammar is connected with Noam Chomsky (yes, the anarchist. don’t ask).
(See Guide for the Advancing Grammarian by Kathleen Black for more information on these three approaches to grammar. More information noted at the end of this post.)
Next, let’s examine the purpose and role of (traditional) grammar.
The purpose of traditional grammar, in my view, is (or should be) to make language as clear as possible. Prescriptive grammar aims (or should aim) to provide a standardized way of writing so as to make language easier to understand.
So, what does that make the role of (traditional) grammar?
Well, (traditional) grammar works best for writing. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to attempt to speak grammatically correct (it doesn’t hurt to attempt to speak more clearly). But we all have a dialect, and people get their point across ninety-nine point nine percent of the time when speaking, so there’s really no point in attempting to speak grammatically correct. It’s cumbersome and could, in some situations, make your speech sound awkward and unnatural. Plus, dialects are cool. I make an effort to speak grammatically correct but for an odd reason: I write how I talk. The way my first drafts come out is how I hear the words in my head (can I get three cheers for subvocalization?), so by speaking grammatically correct, my first drafts come out more grammatically correct, which saves me editing time later since I (ideally) have fewer errors. Speaking grammatically correct also helps me keep my grammar skills sharp since it forces me to think about grammar more often. However, this likely isn’t the situation for most people.
However, traditional grammar shines when applied to writing. In particular, academic and professional writing. This is where you want to be the clearest and sound the most professional, which is what using so-called correct grammar does.
On the other hand, in creative writing, grammar gets thrown out the window (defenestrated). But in order to break the rules, you have to understand the rules. In creative writing, every comma left out should be intentional so that it adds to the meaning and flow of the writing. Parataxis is a fine example of this. Parataxis is constructing a list while separating each and every item either with a comma or with an “and.” For example,
She told him to buy peanut butter, chocolate, pens, and the new book.
She told him to buy peanut butter and chocolate and pens and the new book.
She told him to buy peanut butter, chocolate, pens, the new book.
When listing items in a grammatically correct manner, the last item often can feel like an after thought because of the “and.” However, parataxis aims to give more equal attention to each item and also gives the list a nice flow.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to make an important distinction between grammar rules and style rules. There are some rules that are often presented as grammar rules that are actually style rules. In other words, they apply more appropriately to creative writing than professional writing or they sometimes make some writing better in some capacities. The most popular of these so-called rules is, in my experience, not ending a sentence with a preposition. Repeat after me, “I can end a sentence with a preposition, and the sentence can be grammatically correct. The world will not end.” This rule, as far as I can tell (and have been told), stems from the idea that in creative writing, it is often a poor decision to end a sentence with a preposition because the emphasis in a sentence falls on the last word. So, if you end a sentence with a preposition (one of the breed of words that I like to call “filler words”), you are putting the emphasis on a word that was likely not the main focus of the sentence. Most times, the sentence would be more powerful if it ended with a noun or verb, but this is just a style rule, so it is not necessarily set in stone: Maybe your sentence is better if you end it with a preposition. Indeed, in more academic or formal writing (or creative writing for that matter), sometimes structuring the sentence in a way that avoids ending the sentence in a preposition can make the sentence confusing.
In conclusion, there are some different ways of approaching grammar (prescriptive, descriptive, and generative), (traditional) grammar rules have their appropriate uses and less-appropriate uses, and style rules are sometimes misconstrued as grammar rules.
Note: This post was largely informed by Guide for the Advancing Grammarian: An Exploration of English for Writers and Teachers the Second Edition by Kathleen Black. I got the information for my brief explanations of the three types of grammar from this guide, and the guide goes into significantly more detail (ninety-nine percent of the first chapter is dedicated to explaining these three approaches to grammar) than I did here. Additionally, it is a largely informative guide on grammar for writers (and teachers). Mainly, the book focuses on treeing sentences, which is a fantastic way to conceptualize language. Additionally, the book provides explanations and tips on writing style. I also believe the book talks about the fact that the not-ending-sentences-with-a-preposition-thing is a style rule (and why it is often misconstrued as a grammar rule), but I couldn’t find it in the book when I went back looking for it and couldn’t remember what part of the book I would have seen it in.
Unedited version of the photo here.