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About Writing Right: The Blog


Someone the other day asked if it's allowable to have mistakes in grammar as long as your reader understands what you're saying. I was shocked at the overwhelming number of replies. I was even more surprised at the voluminous amount of misinformation people provided. Here's how I responded.

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I'm afraid that what some respondents to your question have overlooked is the very basic meaning of the word "mistakes." That was the crux of your question. Comparing authors who make grammatical mistakes with those who intentionally misuse grammatical references or structure misses the point entirely. Intentional use of incorrect or improper grammar is not a mistake; it's deliberate. Mistakes are the misuse of proper grammar by not understanding what constitutes proper grammar.


With that out of the way, the only answer to your question is a resolute No! The reasons are numerous, from making yourself sound like a complete, doddering idiot to conveying your lack of qualifications for writing anything at all. But, most of all, the reason for avoiding grammatical errors is that grammar usage rules were formalized eons ago to help people communicate with one another. Groups of people. Lots of people. People from all educational and social backgrounds. When one person learns why he should use "this" in a sentence while using "that" somewhere else, it's a given that everyone who has been similarly schooled in proper grammatical usage will understand that writer's meaning. There's less likelihood of misinterpretation. You know: fewer fistfights in the streets, fewer wars in the homeland.


Once a writer forgives his misuse of the language in the hopes that "their reader understands it," that writer is shooting craps with a pair of loaded dice. It's tough enough to enforce the standardized grammatical rules of English among people who try to understand and practice them. It's impossible to do so with people who write whatever they want and hope the dice come up a winner.


As for one respondent's didactic splurge on the development of one of the greatest artists of all time, sure, it's true, as any first-year art student knows. Picasso was not only a master of modernism, impressionism, and cubism but also a classically trained draftsman with an intimate knowledge of the human body, scale, lighting, and perspective. His pre-modernist works rival the mechanics of even da Vinci. But, the respondent's implication is lost when he argues that writers whose work includes numerous grammatical "mistakes" are somehow on par with writers who intentionally break grammatical rules for a distinct purpose, such as for emphasis, as did E. E. Cummings, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, and others.


To that same tribalist's tribute equating artistic mistakes with deliberately morphed stylistics, I would remand an old adage. It reads, "You have to know the rules before you can break the rules." It does not read, "You have to be ignorant of the rules before you can break the rules."


There's a bit of a difference between the two, wouldn't you say?


In the end, there's a much greater chance for readers to understand the meanings of writers who know the rules and intentionally break them than there is to understand the meanings of writers who don't know the rules and indiscriminately break them. See my point here?

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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.

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