Perfection and grammar: not essential for ESL students, or even native speakers

Certain grammar rules unnecessary for comprehension, everyday conversation

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“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

-Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) Spanish surrealist painter

Is it always essential to have perfect grammar? Must we always avoid split infinitives, dangling modifiers and grocery shopping lines labeled “Ten Items or Less,” since the sign should read “Ten Items or Fewer?”

Leading linguist and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker doesn’t think so. In this Guardian article, he spotlights 10 grammar rules that are okay to break some of the time. His reasoning varies by example, but mostly regards contemporary acceptance, informal vs. formal settings and the historical use of the word. These rules have foiled great writers, national ad campaigns and grammar purists themselves–but whether or not they are actually broken falls under another story. While Pinker does praise writing with classical grammar, he emphasizes the fact that sometimes some grammar rules are taken too seriously, and unreasonably so.

Pinker’s points reiterate the importance of clarity and communication above all else. Though English language learners should learn certain grammar rules, they must know that perfection is not the ultimate goal. Clearness is far more important. For instance, teachers waste time stressing that sentences can’t end with prepositions–one of the misconceptions Pinker debunks-instead of focusing on content and real-world situations. In the real world, people say sentences like “Who are you writing to?” instead of “To whom are you writing?” And (notice this sentence starts with a conjunction) English learners need to know when they’re not making real mistakes and that, instead, they’re violating an outdated, unused rule.

What other grammar rules have become obsolete? Which rules do you stress in your classrooms?

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