A friend of mine who knows my propensity for being a Grammar Nazi constantly argues that the context of a phrase or sentence makes up for poor grammar, excusing it because the context allows the reader to still understand what is being said even if the grammar isn’t perfect. At face value, that argument seems to make a great deal of sense. After all, the whole point of language is to communicate information in a manner that the recipient understands what is being said and can act on it. Good enough, right?
Nope. Not buyin’ it. And here’s why…
We’ve all heard the principle that “love covers a multitude of sins.” That’s actually biblical, from I Peter 4:8. At the risk of starting a theological debate (I do love a good one, but just not here), does that ideal pertain to grammar sins? Is context the language equivalent to love? Does it cover a multitude of grammatical guffaws? Or is it a classic case of the Bible being taken out of, well, context and used to serve one’s personal agenda? I’d say we go with that one.
While love may cover the sins and forgive the sinner, context does not justify bad grammar. Misspellings, poor punctuation, and split infinitives are still wrong. In fact, they make reading harder because the reader first stumbles over the poor grammar, causing disruption to the flow, and then has to rewind and read it again so context can try (sometimes in vain) to clean up the mess. This is not why context exists. In fact, I would argue this relationship between context and grammar is completely reversed.
Context and grammar do play well together, and the burden of clarity falls solely on context’s shoulders to tell grammar what to do. But that doesn’t mean context is always the boss. Take the classic case of there, their, and they’re. Which one do you use? That depends on the context. If the context dictates they’re and you write there instead, it’s still wrong even if the reader can figure out what you meant to say. In this case, context doesn’t help; it only serves to make the grammatical error even more glaring.
Or how about a dangling participle? (So embarrassing in public!) Sure, the context will probably help you figure out what it’s supposed to modify, but why make the reader work that hard? Why not just do it right in the first place?
Is context important? Yes. Is proper grammar important? It’s vital. Does context cover a multitude of grammatical sins? No.
Relying on context for clarity is a pitiful excuse for grammatical laziness. Bad grammar is still bad grammar! Fix it and the reader won’t have to struggle through your writing.