On Grammar and Syntax

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I have feelings about the Oxford comma.

Sure, I know some disciplines view the comma as optional. Some people learned to write without it and don’t see the need for the addition. Still, I advocate for its use in all things. Though readers accept its absence, its inclusion can bring clarity where confusion may otherwise exist. While leaving it out may not be technically incorrect, sentences without it feel incomplete and wrong to me.

Admittedly, not everyone feels passionately about grammar. In fact, you may be more annoyed by grammar fanatics than helped by them. They often pop up on social media, missing the entire point of your post as they highlight every spelling error or grammatical mistake they spot. And I understand the frustration. Grammar and syntax can feel like subjects we left behind in grade school, rules useful for passing quizzes and tests but holding little bearing on the remainder of life. We aren’t graded on our emails or text messages or tweets, so why bother with all of the rules?

A few reasons come to mind. First, writing plays a larger part in our lives than we may realize. Consider for a moment how many words you write each day. Between text messages, online posts, comments, emails, notes, and letters, many of us write regularly throughout each day. If you’re a student, you likely take notes, engage in discussion boards, and write papers in addition to the regular acts of writing. If you’re in ministry, you probably write lessons and sermons each week. And if you journal or blog, you’re adding a bunch of words to your daily word count. Notice too that our verbal output isn’t just high, it’s public. Much of what we write will be read by others or will affect our communication with others. And when communication is the goal, clarity is key. We likely write because we want to be heard, to express what we’re passionate about, to lead others to share our position. Laziness in grammar and syntax may communicate to readers that we lack passion or concern for our subject, and it may keep people from understanding us (more on that below).

Second, details play a larger role in our conversations than we may realize. Consider discussions surrounding current events. In many cases, arguments hinge on our use of pronouns, our definitions of terms, and our understanding of technical statements. In many cases, especially when talking with those with whom we disagree, careless words and poorly articulated arguments can hinder clear communication and can prevent persuasion. And this isn’t a new thing. Major theological conversations in history have depended upon the inclusion or absence of a single letter in a word. Again, laziness in grammar and syntax is no friend to communication. We serve others by striving for clarity in our writing.

Third, confusion is more prevalent in language than we may realize. If you spend time on social media, you’ll likely notice two things: passionate writers and misunderstandings of their words. I’m convinced some people view disagreement as a hobby, attempting to find fault with almost anything they didn’t write, but even the most genuine people can write something that gets misread, leading to confusion, frustration, explanation, more confusion, increased frustration, and so on. In some cases (not all), confusion can be avoided, and grammar and syntax can help. By considering our words, looking for the right combination with the right grammar, we can help our readers to hear our points without the message getting lost in the medium.

While I don’t think grammar and syntax can solve every problem, I do think an increased focus on them can help us be better communicators. And why wouldn’t we want that? If we want people to know Christ as Lord, why not take a little extra time to make sure our messages are clear, free from distraction and confusion? Why not strive for excellence in articulation in the hope that God would use our writing to open the eyes of the lost and to encourage the hearts of his saints?


Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

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