Why You Need To Stop Whining About Grammar

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about grammar which stirred a lot of reactions from people, accusing me of everything from being misleading to using scare tactics! And of course, since I'm making millions of dollars from people being afraid of grammar, I can totally see where they got that idea from. (Irony, anyone?) But the thing is, it's not scare tactics, because I don't have to scare you. You're already scared.

Here's the problem. The age old grammar debate is fundamentally nothing more than bullshit. That's it. It's all bullshit.

We all agree that it's important to use words correctly. We all agree that it's important to know how to construct a sentence, or when to use this preposition or that one. Right?

Yet when you call that by it's name — grammar — suddently a large number of people turn into assholes. And why? Probably because they didn't like the grammar portions of their English classes in school, and using that word evokes memories of a really boring part of a really boring class that you didn't understand and didn't see the use for.

However... if you had known in sixth grade that one day you would grow up and try to learn another language, you might have paid more attention to what those parts of speech are called, because it would really help you to learn faster.

Learning without learning?

But it's too late for that now, so now we're stuck in a situation where people want to learn foreign languages but they want to learn them without knowing what a preposition is, or what the dative case is, or what an indirect object is.

Let's stop and think about that for a second. That's like saying you want to become an accountant, but you want to do it without learning boring words like amortization or principal.

Imagine an astrophysicist not knowing what gravitation is. I would love to see the look on his colleagues' faces when he said, "I can't tell you why the path isn't straight, but I just know that it's going to bend toward the big object."

You see, yes... an astrophysicist can intuit the gravitational forces of planets, and a really dedicated accountant could figure out how to amortize without ever learning th word. And yes, a person studying German could, given enough time and exposure, figure out when and how to use the dative case. But why on earth would you want to do that when there's a simple explanation already written out for you?

It only has the power that you give to it

We have allowed generations of people before us (and their evil school teachers) to set the tone for this word "grammar", but it only has the power we give to it. So why the can't we stop demonizing grammar? We have that choice, you know.

What is grammar? It's nothing more than a handful of what... a dozen, maybe two dozen words that describe the roles of various words in a sentence? So why is it okay to know what a sentence is, but it's evil to know what a preposition is? Who decides which terms are okay and which terms are evil?

I say none of them are evil. I say it's time to stop giving that word "grammar" so much power of you. It's just a word. If it makes things easier, stop calling it "grammar" and start calling it "Fred".

Just take the time to learn it. Take the few short hours to learn Fred, so you can understand what it means when someone says "perfective" or "imperative" or "subjunctive". Once you understand it there's no mystery left, so there's nothing to be scared of.

But more importantly, once you understand it, you can learn in minutes and hours what it would have taken you days, weeks, or months to learn. And that's really what we're all looking for, isn't it?


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  • Thanks I needed that! Preparing for an evening by the log fire with my "Concise book of Swedish Grammar" in readiness for exams and starting a new job and life out here. Perfect timing to get a bit of encouragement to just get on with it. Thanks! Tack!
    Christina

  • Ever since I started to seriously learn the Italian language, I found that I LOVE grammar. It is something I simply ADORE! Can't get enough. Initially I spent the first couple of years pouring over grammar books, like they were cross word puzzle books. I wanted to master it all. After all, grammar provides the keys to the castle and the real "scoop" on how another language ticks! Once that is mastered you are king of the language and king of your castle!

  • I totally agree about the demonizing grammar part. People need to know the difference between deciding something is unnecessary and deciding something should be avoided like the plague.I know for a fact that we don’t NEED grammar to learn a language. My wife speaks perfect English, learned it in about a year and a half, has never stepped foot in the US, and doesn’t know the difference between a preposition and an adverb. What she knows is the FORM of the language, intuitively, but she knows nothing of names and rules.That is how many people learn… BUT NOT EVERYBODY. I like grammar, and I refuse to feel guilty for studying some French verb charts every now and again. That’s how I achieved fluency in Spanish, so I know it works for me.I guess my point is we can learn with or without grammar, and we should force anyone to learn a certain way. I personally agree with you about the time thing. It takes less time to figure things out if you can read a rule and see some examples. Seeing examples alone could get you to the same place, but to me it would be much more work, and my tiny brain can’t handle that much work.Like you said, the whole debate is dumb. The grammar/no grammar war really boils down to how you WANT to learn, by deduction or induction, or with the Structural Approach (learning a language by its grammatical structures) or the Lexical Approach (learning by words and phrases) or some combination of both.

  • So it's like the syntax of a programming language?
    Because I can't recall anyone teaching a programming language telling you to ignore syntax & try to pick it up along the way.Maybe next time, you can say a few words about the other end of the asshole spectrum - the ones who (that?) correct sentences like it's their job.

  • Correcting someone else's speech can be annoying or offensive, but it has little to do with "the grammar debate" and more to do with personality.

  • They didn't teach me grammar at school :P. When I learned my mother tongue, they didn't really teach any kids grammar who were in the top stream for English and didn't test for it. It could be worse I suppose, I met a guy who was part of an experiment where a number of schools were taught phonetic English (the plan being that they would learn to read and write faster and then pick up real spelling later).I don't think I need grammar, whether the explanation makes sense to me or not that still doesn't help me talk fluently in a flash. My sister aced a German grammar test in a German school on a language exchange (beating most of the Germans) but she was rubbish at talking German (as she herself would admit) she could write German quite well though.I don't mind people talking about grammar, it is important that someone works it out (useful for comparing languages, translation software, text to speech, speech to text etc. etc. ). Similarly I think linguists in general get a hard time, people always giving them a bad time without realizing that studying a language is not the same as studying language.Have you noticed that if someone speaks you language with poor grammar but a good choice of vocabulary and good pronunciation it is not hard to understand them (yes they should improve but right at that point they have come a long long way). Most Chinese can understand the explanation for "he" and "she" in flash but still get them mixed up in real time until they have practiced its a "gut" thing,I agree, if you like grammar then use it, it you want to talk about it and find it useful then I won't complain, but don't assume that however simple it may seem to learn it will be at all useful to everybody.

  • I really enjoyed this post and the last one. There are some bloggers that have quite a large following that either preach the passive learning approach or the unfocused approach, both of which I think are worse than learning in school, although to be honest I've never tried to learn a language that way (see the linguist blog).Honestly I don't see how you can learn a language without learning grammar - it seems like it will take an awful long time. Do you just rote memorize every sentence? Does the grammar just "come to you" - if so, then wouldn't taking some time to study it to speed up that process make sense? I don't get it.@Chris. What do you mean you don't need grammar? I'm really curious what people mean when they say that they don't want to learn grammar. Do you really mean that you don't want to learn the vocabulary used to talk about grammar, but actually still learn grammar? If it's the last case, I can't say I disagree with that approach. If you don't learn grammar at all, then how does that work? Lots of exposure and you eventually just "get it"?

  • Some languages are more grammar intensive than others, and some dialects of some languages are more grammatically subtle than others. Osmosis based curriculae such as Rosetta Stone are great for Vietnamese but a waste of time for Arabic because in Arabic its all about grammar and in Vietnamese its all about vowel tone.

  • You're absolutely right. You can't learn a language without learning about grammar, because... grammar IS the language.

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