Grammar versus Style

No one disputes that good writing has to have good grammar. But what do we mean when we say “grammar”? It may not be what we’re used to thinking it is.

Take, for example, the following pairs of sentences. In each pair, make note of which one is grammatical.

  1. Who are you going to the dinner with?
  2. With whom are you going to the dinner?
  1. He wanted to completely destroy the enemy city.
  2. He wanted to destroy the enemy city completely.
  1. A writer should trust their instincts when composing an essay.
  2. A writer should trust his or her instincts when composing an essay.
  1. And so, we find that we are tempted to edge closer and closer to absolute certainty in doctrine, belief, and ideology. But is such certainty even possible?
  2. We find that we are tempted to edge closer and closer to absolute certainty in doctrine, belief, and ideology. Is such certainty even possible?
  1. Who would be willing to give that up? Not me.
  2. Who would be willing to give that up? I would not be willing to do so.

Many of you have likely concluded that in each pair, sentence 1 was ungrammatical, and sentence 2 was the grammatical one. But this was a trick quiz: they’re all grammatical.

laptop and books on brown wooden table
Photo by Ivan Samkov on

“But how can that be?” you might ask. There are all kinds of grammatical mistakes in the first sentence of each pair: ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting an infinitive, using they as a singular pronoun, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and using a sentence fragment.

See, here’s the thing: those aren’t rules of grammar; they’re rules of style. And while the sentences above might violate those style rules, they don’t violate any grammatical rules.

Grammar is the system that describes the rules for how a language actually functions, and the rules of grammar are usually so deeply in us that no one has to teach them to us as native speakers. For example, I am willing to bet that no one has ever told you not to say things like:

  • *What a beautiful day it’s!
  • *I would really like to eating this pizza.
  • *Big the dog walked down street the.
  • *I borrowed she’s book for the week.

Those sentences violate actual rules of grammar. The first sentences of each pair above violate rules of style.

And let’s be clear: style is important. Inappropriate style can be just as detrimental to your credibility as if you’d said I borrowed she’s book for the week.

For this reason, it’s really important to ask yourself who your audience is when you’re writing. If you’re writing for a job interview or some other formal context, you will want to follow those rules. But if you’re writing a piece for a popular audience or if you’re writing fiction, you’ll want to consider violating those rules for the sake of a natural flow.

Take a look at the same idea across three different contexts and note how inappropriate each would be in any of the other contexts:

Do you know with whom you will invest your money? You may want to decide immediately. An investor like you has to trust his advisor, and establishing a relationship of trust can take time. Some investors delay too long and decide to make their own investment decisions. This strategy often backfires, and investors may lose large sums of money. Therefore, it is unwise to delay in identifying a trustworthy and knowledgeable investment advisor.Who will you invest your money with? You should immediately decide. An investor has to trust their advisor, and it can take time to establish a trusting relationship. Sometimes people wait too long and just decide to invest on their own. But that often backfires, and they lose a lot of money. So, it’s not smart to wait to find an investment advisor you can trust.Who ya gonna pick to handle your money? Decide quickly: you have to trust your advisor. Some people wait too long and decide to do it themselves. But they lose a ton of money. So stupid.

Each of the above passages is appropriate to its context but not appropriate to the others. If you spoke to your friends the way you wrote a formal essay, you’d likely get as much ridicule as you would if you wrote a cover letter in the conversational style.

So, in the end, it’s important to know all those “rules of grammar” discussed above—they’re important for formal writing and help to convey a sense of seriousness and erudition. However, it’s just as important to know when to break them.

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