Why does grammar matter?
Does it bother you when people don’t ‘talk proper’? When they say things like “I’ve did it” instead of “I’ve done it”? When they write “would of” instead of “would have”? Or are they being picky about something that doesn’t really matter? Why do teachers correct these things? Actually, it’s because they want to give you a big house with a couple of nice cars in the drive and all the foreign holidays you could wish for. But before we go there, I’ve got to let you into a shocking secret.There’s no such thing as proper or “correct” English.
My Gran was from Lancashire. She spoke in a strong Lancashire accent and she’d say things like “Get thi gone” instead of “Hurry up” and “starved” instead of “cold”. But she was speaking English – just a different kind of English. And in her street they’#d have thought she was weird if she’d spoken any other way; so her kind of English was absolutely right for where and when she lived.
So is yours. Your friends would laugh their heads off if anyone suggested: “I say, chums, wouldn’t it be ever so jolly if we mooched over to the ramps and demonstrated our skateboarding prowess to the fillies?” It would be English, of a sort, but completely the wrong sort of English for the time, the place, and the people.
All the many different kinds of English – legalese, journalese, computer talk, political doublespeak – are right for their time and place. And the people who use these different kinds of English aren’t just using them to convey meaning: they’re using them as badges, too. So when police officers say something like: “Would you mind stepping out of the car, madame?” (which, let’s face it, no-one would say in ordinary life), they’re not just telling someone to get out of their car. They’re also saying: “I’m a police officer. I use this kind of very formal English to identify myself as a police officer, and you have to do what I say.”
So here’s where the big house with the cars and holidays comes in. Standard Written English, which is what your teachers are using when they correct your writing, is exactly the same – it’s a code. You might think that the difference between “your” and “you’re” or “its” and “it’s” or even “would of” and “would have” doesn’t matter – that anyone who reads it, whether the wrong or the right version, knows exactly what you mean. And of course, you’re perfectly right. But there’s more to it than that. By using the right version – the right spelling, the right punctuation – you’re saying: “I’m all right. I’m educated. You can trust me to fit in and do things the right way.”
Right or wrong, examiners will mark you down for incorrect use of Standard Written English. Your university application, your job application – they’ll make you look second-rate if you haven’t got SWE well and truly nailed. It’s not a question of good English or bad English, “correct” English or “incorrect” English. It’s just how things are: you have to crack the code if you want to join the club.