What's the significance of correct grammar (as long as the information gets across)?

This confuses me, because I intuitively think that:

  • Yes, if there are grammar rules, then one should attempt to follow them.

But in practice

  • It's possible that some grammar decisions are immensely complicated (subject-dependent) and cannot be captured in those rules.


  • It's possible that the grammar being according to rules is not "intentional" in all contexts, because some specialized contexts might be better clarified by some other "intended meanings". Or "following grammar rules" is not particularly required in order for information to pass over (which should be the main point?)?

I don't know. Over and over again I find complaints made about grammar, but the more I read text the more it seems like "being very exact" matters very little, because often "deviation" can be parsed by the brain, even if it wasn't correct to the rule. Thus invalidating the NEED to follow rules like a slave, since they can be still parsed by the brain. So even if your punctuation was off, it's often possible to understand what you mean (thus is correct punctuation required in the first place?). While having incorrect information cannot.

  • 5
    Punctuation is not really a part of grammar to begin with, so that’s not the best example. Grammar is nothing more than a system of rules governing how information is structured in specific ways to maximise the possibility that the recipient (listener/reader) will understand the information correctly. It’s true that there’s a fair bit of redundancy and you can break a good number of those rules and still have a parseable message, but break too many and the parsing breaks down. “I writed a letter to my mother” is parseable; “letter to I a my writed mother” is gibberish. Oct 28 at 7:41
  • 1
    I'm not sure there is an answerable question here. It's clear that there is a spectrum from intelligible to unintelligible language which largely correlates with 'according to the rules' and free-form. It's also clear that in some cases strict adherence to rules can make a text less intelligible, so the correlation is not complete. In the end where you want to stand on that spectrum depends on the purpose of the text, the amount of time you have to produce it, and many other factors. So you're right that there is no need to follow rules like a slave, but not that rules are not required at all.
    – Keelan
    Oct 28 at 8:21

There are two senses of grammar. The popular sense is the prescriptive sense, which you may learn a bit about in school when they tell you that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, or you shouldn't say "Me and Jim are leaving". The elements of style by Strunk & White contains numerous such prescriptions. The significance of "grammar" in that sense is that it defines a norm that some people expect you to follow, and if you don't follow those expectations, they might be disappointed. Though also, if you do follow those expectations, you may disappoint other people. In some professions, you have to follow those expectations or suffer significant professional consequences. Unfortunately for everybody, there is no definitive and authoritative reference book for what you are and are not supposed to do. Along with Strunk & White, I would recommend the Chicago Manual of Style. Then if some person whines about your grammar, they should at least be required to back up their complaint with reference to one of those sources.

The second sense of grammar is "the actual rules of the language". Those rules are not consciously known by anyone, indeed some people even doubt that language is rule-governed behavior. So it's impossible to deliberately "follow the rules", in that sense.

It may be useful to at least be aware of "what the (subconscious) rules do". A trivial case is being able to detect that the sentence "Old men and women are admitted for free on Saturday" has two meanings, one where all women but only old men get free admission, and the other where only old (men or women) get free admission. But "Women and old men are admitted for free on Saturday" has only one meaning. Many people are unaware of ambiguities, but most people encounter them in daily life and are shocked when things don't work out the way they want, because they didn't understand what the other person intended. A litle awareness can help yo to ask appropriate questions.

In extreme cases, (deliberately) violating the actual rules of grammar can make comprehension extremely hard. If you take a text and randomize the order of words, maybe also throwing in completely irrelevant snow words in the middle cow of the sentence, it will make interpretation impossible, but you need a computer to completely mess up the structure of a sentence. It is cognitively very difficult to maintain a true randomization of expected sentence structure in fluent speech, so you will probably just end up with a mildly distorted version of the language like Yoda-talk.

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    I feel quite sorry for the poor middle cow, having irrelevant snow words thrown into it like that. Oct 29 at 7:43
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    Sorry, I rarely downvote, but I have to in this instance for "Along with Strunk & White I recommend ... ." The poisonous misinformation in S&W is such that if you do follow it, you'll be lambasted by anyone who cares about your writing. I don't think they'll phone you up to ask you why you can't write coherently so that you can explain!!! More importantly, although S&W use grammar terms like "passive" and "verb" they mainly write (incoherently) about style, not grammar. The inane proscription against passives, for example, nowhere states that passives are "ungrammatical"! Oct 29 at 23:02

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