Does Grammar Matter?

As a writer and also an ex-teacher, I ask myself, on the issue of writing proficiency: how far does ‘correctness’ actually matter? When is it okay to break writing rules? Is misplaced political correctness creeping in to affect writing standards?

I will explain. It seems that, in some British universities, guidance is being given that tutors should no longer mark down students’ work because of bad spelling or grammar. What – I exclaim in alarm! This is because the requirement for good (Standard) English could be seen as divisive: disadvantaging students from poorer backgrounds and those for whom English is not their first language. What matters, apparently, is that students develop their own ‘authentic voice’. Therefore, insistence on technical proficiency will discriminate against anyone from a poorly performing school. While I agree that students should be encouraged to develop an authentic voice: I don’t quite see why this ‘voice’ should in any way conflict with the need for a reasonable standard of English.

We can look at writing in two distinct ways: creative or not. As a creative writer, when writing stories and poems I knowingly break grammatical rules for effect. Sentences may begin with conjunctions. I use punctuation creatively too – in ways that may not be strictly correct, but help to get my style of writing across in the way I want to. All creative writers break the strict rules of written literacy when we need to. BUT – competent creative writers must know enough about Standard English in the first place, to be able to break those rules effectively – to suit the purpose of a particular piece of writing. Such rule-breaking is not random – but deliberate. Creativity with words (and sentences) does not emerge from lack of knowledge about language – but from linguistic competence.

What about non-creative writing: applying for a job, writing formal reports, writing articles for newspapers? Good spelling and grammar matter. In the world of work, the skills of written English still act as the currency of career development: good English still helps us to climb the employment ladder.

Admittedly, in this new age of texting and communicative informality, using language in short forms to get our message across to friends and family is something we all do – with spelling and grammar often flying out of the window. But there is a huge difference between formal and informal written communication.

So is this trend an idiotic travesty of what universities stand for – or a reflection of what writing should be about? While, as a creative writer, I understand the need for ideas to be the over-riding consideration: as a teacher I deplore the acceptance of non-standard English – outside of its creative, and deliberately rule-breaking, intention.

Is this proposed trend really more inclusive – or does it patronise and demean those students whose literacy is not up to standard? What effect will such a move have on standards of writing? Of course it is right to widen the criteria for acceptance into university, and to ensure that all students have the chance to show what they can achieve.

On the other hand, would some students not be best helped by extra coaching to bring their English up to the required standards – to support their future life and employment chances? Should students also be taught when correctness matters – and when it doesn’t – as part of the development of individual writing ‘voice’? I think so.

So in my view, grammar does matter, because without that essential knowledge as a foundation, how can students know when and if to break writing rules – or how?

I am author of thirteen books for schools, plus five for parents. If your child has SEND, Book 1: Support Your Child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: a guide for parents, offers all you need to know about the SEND system. Books 2 to 5: Support Your Child At The Early Years Foundation Stage, At Key Stage One, At Key Stage Two and At Key Stage Three – offer a comprehensive outline of WHAT should be taught and HOW. Available from Lulu or Amazon.

Sylvia Edwards

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