Grammar isn’t about rules. It’s about meaning.

Yesterday, I was Cc’d in an email. My coworker, Annie, (who handles all the online payments in our department) emailed our boss, Gary and said,

“Hi Gary, Ross is asking me to pay the website fee for 149.95USD, but the bank is asking for a verification code to complete the payment. What should I do? Thanks, Annie”

I read this and thought, ‘what a bitch.’

“Ross is asking me…”, I mean, really? You make it sound like I’m over by your desk every ten minutes, poking you in the ribs, bugging you incessantly; “Can you pay the website fee?” “Can you pay the website fee?” Why couldn’t you have written, “Ross has asked me to?” or just plain and simple “Ross asked me to?”

After a couple of minutes I read the email again with my English teacher eyes and thought, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this. “Hi Gary, Ross is asking me to pay the website fee for 149.95USD...” It looks okay. It’s “grammatically correct”. It’s not “The Old Man and the Sea” of emails, but’s it’s not ‘wrong’.

And that’s the problem. We usually teach grammar as sets of rules. Right/wrong. Correct/incorrect. If you obey these rules, you won’t look like a moron when you write.

But when we read grammar (like in Annie’s email) it communicates meaning. It makes the reader feel a certain way.

So what does that mean for us teachers? Next time our students are transforming sentences from past continuous to present perfect continuous, past simple to past perfect, or active to passive, we need to ask the students “How would someone feel if…”

  • their fiancée mentioned “I was thinking about marrying him” vs. “I’ve been thinking about marrying him”?

  • an old friend told them “I think we’d make a great couple” vs. “I think we would’ve made a great couple”?

  • the Former President said “I made a mistake” vs. “Mistakes were made”?

Grammar’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about sounding like/not like a bitch. Grammar isn’t about rules. It’s about communicating meaning.

Agree? Disagree? Don't care? Please leave us your comments below!