Clarity. Doesn’t it always come back to that? When I write the grammar posts for this blog on Thursdays, I try (not always successfully) to provide the rules without judgement (unless you’re North American, in which case you’re just wrong!) Whether you follow them or not is really up to you. For example, the way I was taught, literally doesn’t mean figuratively and due to doesn’t mean as a result of, but both are now accepted alternatives. Knowing the ‘right’ way is still useful, because a lot of people will judge you for ‘misusing’ the language, and that matters in job interviews, on dates and if you’re looking for commercial success as a writer.
But ultimately, the purpose of language is to make oneself understood, and as long as the audience understands, we have mostly achieved our purpose. Clarity, however, shouldn’t be taken for granted, and when editing, it’s particularly easy to assume clarity where there is none. As writers, we tend to know what we mean, which makes checking our own work much more difficult. And that, to some extent, is what grammar rules are for.
Have you ever played that game where you describe something without using the word? Great for a game, not so much for reading a novel. If I say to my husband, for example: “Oh, I left the thingy for the whatsit at the house,” he might understand what I’m talking about. But only because I’m lucky to have a husband who occasionally shows some prowess in mind-reading; the truth is, that’s not a helpful sentence. And if I write the equivalent, it’s not going to go down well. Hence grammar, hence precision and hence clarity.