Back in my teaching days, my students would quickly come to realize that the phrase, “that depends,” was my favorite answer to all of their questions. Whether the topic was the best organizational structure for an essay or the placement of a comma, I would explain that the “right” answer was entirely dependent on what composition scholars call the “rhetorical situation.” Everything that surrounds the creation of the document, who the author is, who the audience is, what the subject matter is, what is going on in the world at the time, and many other things, should be taken into consideration and should impact the writing decisions that are made by the author. I argue (and I imagine the response to this claim will be starkly divided along two lines – those who agree and those who vehemently disagree) that choices about grammar should be made based on the rhetorical situation, rather than simply along the lines of right and wrong. So, for me, the better question is not “does grammar matter,” but “when does grammar matter” and, when it does matter, “why does it matter.”
Grammar’s most utilitarian function is, of course, to provide clarity and to ensure that the author’s meaning is understood, as much as that is ever possible. Using the right verb tense and recognized spellings of words can be necessary to make sure that the author is understood at all. However, a lot of the things that the so-called “grammar police” harp on are not things that are likely to impact meaning. The incorrect use of the word “you’re” instead of “your,” or vice versa, is not really likely to cause a misunderstanding. Take the funny meme about grammar saving lives that warns that the phrase, “Let’s eat Grandma,” without the comma between “eat” and “Grandma” could create confusion and cause someone to think they were being invited to participate in cannibalism. It’s an amusing example of how grammar can impact meaning, but in reality, the rhetorical situation will make any misunderstanding of that statement highly unlikely. Whether or not you are suggesting cannibalism, your audience will be able, without fail, to understand what you mean there.
The other important function that grammatical correctness serves is in giving the author a sheen of credibility in certain situations. A person can have a difficult time being taken seriously, especially in academic circles, if she cannot successfully navigate the changing and sometimes turbulent waters of English grammar. The difficulty is that, regardless of what your 7th grade English teacher may have taught you, our language is constantly in flux, and so grammar rules are always changing. Most of the students of my generation were taught that Oxford commas (the ones that go before the word “and” at the end of a list of things) are optional and that we can decide for ourselves whether or not to use them. Some of us were even taught that having them is wrong, even though they can, occasionally, impact meaning. Speaking of meaning, even the meanings of words change constantly. Less than one hundred years ago, the word “awful” was considered to be slang on the order of “wack.” It would never have been used by people who wanted to be taken seriously. Go back a few more hundred years and the word that has evolved into our word “quaint” was the same word as that was used as a very derogatory term for a certain part of female anatomy, and so would not be used in polite society at all.
The real difficulty with linguistic correctness is that there are things that cannot be said, ideas that cannot be expressed, using correct, prescriptive language. When Langston Hughes wrote, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” he was saying something that, “Life, for me, has not been a crystal stair,” simply can’t capture. Sojourner Truth’s excoriating question, “Ain’t I a woman?!” Cannot be improved by editing it to “Am I not a woman?” Sometimes you need to break the rules of language in order to say something new, especially in a world in which linguistic correctness is so often used to belittle others’ ideas and cultures.
I would never argue that we don’t need to learn the rules of grammar. I have always felt that knowing the rules gives you great power, because it allows you to make choices about when to obey them and when to give them the middle finger. It allows you to decide, based on the rhetorical situation, if following the rules or breaking them will give your writing the biggest impact. Rather than trying to police each other’s grammar, we would be better rewarded by keeping in mind that the language is always changing and that, even when we are correct, we are only correct for a moment. I know it may seem odd for an editor to suggest that grammar isn’t the end-all-be-all, but for it to be meaningful, we have to consider the rhetorical situation. Except for a few, specific situations, maybe we should just let the apostrophes fall where they may.