Why bother with grammar?

“Why can’t we let people write the way they want to?” someone challenged me in a training session last week. Like many others, he had never been taught grammar at school and didn’t see why he should start now. And he cited his heroes – Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs – as examples of writers who broke the rules to terrific effect.

He had a point. Are the old rules still relevant in the age of texting, tweeting and instant messaging? Some people think those platforms encourage dumbing down, but aren’t they also full of genuine creativity? So why can’t we be a bit less rigid about grammar and spelling in other written communications as well?

Then I went back to those beat writers, and guess what? Their spelling is conventional. Their grammar is impeccable, unless they choose otherwise. And their punctuation is perfect. Which may explain why my challenger, despite his self-confessed ignorance, understood instinctively how to use commas.

You need to know and understand the rules before you can start breaking them.