Please excuse me for my inevitable geek out here. When I was in elementary and middle school, grammar was beaten into my head. Every time we had English or Language Arts, we learned about some element of grammar. I could diagram sentences by the eighth grade, and I still know what a participle and gerund are. I use semicolons, and not because I'm pretentious, but because I want the space between two complete sentences to be shorter than a period. My own mother makes fun of me for using multi-syllabic words in text messages.
As a senior in high school, I was the president of the Liberal Arts Society (a.k.a. the Creative Writing Club). One of my responsibilities was editing the submissions. It was shortly after beginning to do this that I started giving grammar lessons at each of the meetings (surprisingly, we didn't see a dramatic drop-off in membership when I did). One freshman's stories particularly stand out in my mind. This was a boy who'd been through the exact same school system as I had. Yet he submitted stories to me that contained things like: "Will you throw the ball" Billy asked?
It still makes me twitch a little.
Look, I'm not saying my grammar is perfect. I have no problem ending a sentence with a preposition, though sometimes I'll correct myself. I don't freak out if a comma is in the wrong place because comma rules are often subjective. I understand that when you're having a conversation, sometimes your brain works more quickly than your mouth, and you don't always pay attention to exactly what you're saying. Sometimes the point you're trying to make is more important than the way you make it. And I definitely understand that traditional grammar rules go out the window when you're writing dialogue because people don't speak so formally.
But it also saddens me when I read articles or hear writers talking about how proper grammar just isn't that important. Of course it's important. Words are our instruments; we can wield them with precision, or we can wield them carelessly. When it's used properly, no one appreciates grammar. But use it wrong, and everyone will know. A misplaced comma can be devastating.
I have a friend who's a linguistics major, and he tells me that grammar is made up, and therefore it can change with the times. So the iPod commercials calling it the "Funnest iPod ever" aren't wrong; they're ahead of their time. Eventually language will evolve. Which makes sense, of course, since we have words today that didn't exist even a decade ago (Muggles!).
But it's also wrong because we have to have rules for grammar. Without them, communication falls apart. The written word is so powerful partly because of grammar, because it can be understood by anyone. Not only that, but writing is an art form. There's poetry even in prose, music in the ebb and flow of every sentence. Periods, commas, semicolons, colons, question marks, exclamation points, ellipses... they all contribute to the song. I subconsciously tap my foot when I'm reading, and it took me a long time to figure out that I'm tapping to the rhythm of the sentences. Use grammar improperly, and it's like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz--all the characteristics of a real person, but lacking the heart.
Even when you're breaking the rules--and there are definitely times to do that--do it deliberately. Do it for a purpose, to prove a point or to get the rhythm right or to make the reader feel something. If you think of your story as a song, the words and punctuation are like the sheet music. Read it out loud and hear the way it sounds. Does it sound that way because you think it should, or will everybody read it like that? Have you given them the guidelines so they can hear it too?
If you've made it this far and you aren't considering finding me and sending me for a psychological evaluation... well, thanks. I know most people, even other writers, don't get this passionate about commas and quotation marks. But even though I love music, I don't get that passionate over drum beats and guitar riffs like a lot of other people either. So maybe I'm just doubly weird.