You may have heard the recent news that the education secretary and Pob-a-like Michael Gove is hoping to prioritise grammar in primary school education. There are, of course, those who have been quick to respond by pointing out that language without grammar is like a male vixen: conceptually impossible. Grammar just is the system and structure that allows mutterings or scribblings to function as language. Thus anyone who is able to communicate with language is someone who can use grammar effectively. By learning to write and talk, kids are learning grammar. Moreover, why be so prescriptive? Language use changes all the time! To enforce some ideal standard is akin to some kind of gross linguistic imperialism; something that might eventually prevent literary innovation and the natural evolution of language.
Now, whilst pedantry for pedantry’s sake is singularly annoying, insisting on correct usage does not (or need not) amount to linguistic snobbery or syntactic conservatism. The problem is that whilst muddling through is often a familiar feature of conversation, different rules apply to the written word. In most cases you will not have the opportunity to ask a writer to clarify a murky sentence. But a well-deployed comma might expunge any ambiguity. And as for stifling innovation, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez chooses to use a six paragraph long sentence, unbroken by punctuation, the literary impact of this relies on the sentence’s location in a context of correct usage.
Should primary-school pupils have lessons devoted to grammar? Maybe not. But let’s not downplay its importance or utility. And here’s to the proofreaders and copyeditors, those bastions of correct usage. Long may they continue to keep content unequivocal and good writing comprehensible.