As an editor, I deal with a lot of writing that needs help. Poor grammar is actually one of the easier things to fix (as opposed to poor organization, or worse, an unsupported thesis). But why does grammar matter, anyway? Isn’t fussiness about grammar just a form of snobbery?
Mark Goldblatt makes a concise case for grammar in a recent Wall Street Journal column. He gives this sentence as an example: “Oedipus attempts to avoid his fate by running away from home, it’s a decision he will come to regret.” Goldblatt writes:
That’s wrong. You’re using a comma where you should be using a semicolon. But does it really matter? After all, the reader can still figure out what you’re trying to say.
Yes, it does matter. It really matters. As the reader’s eyes scan down the lines of your page, deciphering your meaning, he’s going to come to that comma—and it’s going to look wrong. He’s going to think, “That looks wrong,” or maybe even “Hey, shouldn’t that be a semicolon?”
But at the moment he’s thinking one of those things, guess what he’s no longer thinking about? He’s no longer thinking about what you’re trying to say.
It isn’t just that the reader will spot an error. Often poor grammar will introduce ambiguities, making the reader pause for a fraction of a second to comprehend your meaning. Enough little errors and your writing becomes clunky and boring, a chore to read even if you’ve done everything else right, even if your ideas are brilliant. Grammar is the grease that keeps the reader’s eye moving smoothly across the page.