Why study English Grammar?

14 Jun

Why study English Grammar?
A Grammar FAQ of Sorts


So What am I supposed to get out of this course?

E360K provides a basis for understanding the linguistic structure and something of the sociolinguistic uses of the English language. Its purpose is not only to provide students with an understanding of the “nuts and bolts” of English, but also to provide an understanding of English as a particular instance of a human language.

We are all born with the neurological wiring, or capacity, to learn language, and infants spend a good portion of their first two years learning the structure of the language–or languages–they hear spoken around them. This is a complex–and marvelous–process that we all went through, and it is learning that takes place unconsciously; in other words it does not require formal instruction. Do you ever see toddlers memorizing lists of irregular verbs? By the time a child is ready to enter kindergarten, she already “knows” in the unconscious sense just about all of the linguistic structure she will need to make sense in her native language(s).

For example, if she is a native speaker of English, she has learned (without learning any of the grammatical terms for these things) that articles and adjectives precede the nouns they modify:

1. The cat sat on a mat.
2. Big cats sit on small mats.

The learns too that prepositions precede the nouns (or noun phrases) they govern:

3. on the mat

She would also recognize structures like these as “not English” even though they are possible in some of the world’s languages:

4. *Cat the sat mat a on.
5. *Cats big sit mats small on.

By contrast, a child growing up in, for example, a Japanese-speaking family would recognize structures like these, with modifiers and postpositions (the equivalents of prepositions) following nouns as proper to her native language (with the words themselves in Japanese, of course):

5. cat the
6. mat on

The point is not just that these structures­and the rules that form them‹are unconscious, they are also systematic. If you are a native speaker of a language like English, then prepositions, for example, precede the nouns they govern. Similarly, all verbs in an English sentence carry information about tense (or the time in which an action occurred).

We recognize a sentence like 7 as an English sentence because the verb was is marked as a past form. Sentence 8, however, does not seem like a complete English sentence because it has no verb marked for tense:

7. The runners were racing to cross the finish line.
8. *The runners racing to cross the finish line.

Systematic rules are part of a tacit understanding that allows speakers of a language to communicate. Speakers of English, for example, couldn’t communicate if the choice of whether to put modifiers before nouns or after them were completely haphazard; in many cases, it would be impossible to identify the relationship between the two elements.


So why study this stuff if I know it already?

One goal of this class is to make conscious at least some of the grammatical rules English speakers learned unconsciously as infants and share in common as speakers of English. This is part of knowing about ourselves and those with whom we speak; such knowledge is (or should be) part of our intellectual foundation as educated people. Consider an analogous example: as human beings, we all possess livers, and most of us could lead quite happy and productive lives without knowing anything about how our livers work; but the knowledge you gain about how the liver works in a biology class is part of more general knowledge about what it is to be a human being. Knowledge about how language, or a particular language, works is even more central to knowing what it is to be human, because humans are the only species that acquire a full language naturally.


But I’m going to be a teacher, and I don’t expect to teach this stuff!

As a teacher-to-be, you will study a number of subjects that you won’t be teaching or that you won’t be teaching in quite the same way you learned these subjects in college. For example, if you take an upper-division course on English literature, you will learn a number of terms, concepts, and ways of interpreting texts that you won’t necessarily apply directly in your classroom, but they will provide an intellectual background for your teaching.

Perhaps the most important thing I hope you will gain from this class is respect for the complexity of the process by which you–and all of your future students–learned language. We will only cover a small part of the grammar speakers of English acquire as infants in the course of a single semester, but I hope what we do cover leaves you with a sense of the intricacy of the grammar you already have in your brain.

I also hope you will come out of this class with concepts and terminology that will allow you to talk and write about language precisely, rather than simply reacting to it impressionistically. For example, consider the first line from William Butler Yeats‘ poem “Sailing to Byzantium“:


That is no country for old men.The speaker is an old man preparing to leave his life and taking comfort in his art as providing a kind of immortality. The choice of the initial word is significant. It’s a demonstrative pronoun showing what a linguist would call “remote deixis.” It points to something known to the speaker and his listener that is in the distance–in this case, the life of those who are still young and vital, and it shows that the speaker already considers himself as standing apart from their world. Compare an alternative version with this, a demonstrative pronoun that conveys “near deixis,” or points to something near at hand:


This is no country for old men.The speaker of this sentence is still very much part of this world. You don’t get that sense of a barrier between him and the world of the young.

I don’t think you’ll be using terms like “remote deixis” in talking with your students about literature, but knowing the concepts and knowing that they present contrasting impressions might help you to draw your students’ attention to the poet’s choice of words.


But I’m not going to teach English!

Knowing the structure of your native language–or of any language–is valuable as knowledge for its own sake. It’s also a good demonstration of the complex nature of the learning we all accomplish in our first few years of life. Finally, learning how to explain and demonstrate your knowledge of a linguistic structure is valuable training for a lot of other fields that depend on one’s learning basic knowledge, the evidence for it, and learning how to demonstrate one’s analysis or conclusions within a system of evidence and argumentation.


If babies acquire grammar naturally, why do you keep harping on arguments and evidence in class assignments?

Good question–as I said, we’re trying to make explicit some of the rules that native speakers of English acquire naturally, but demonstrating how those rules work is not a natural process. It’s very much a matter of presenting arguments. Grammar (or linguistics) is not a field of givens to be memorized, but a field that studies linguistic structures and deduces and argues for rules governing those structures.

But why don’t we discuss how to use semicolons and correct usage?

This isn’t a class on usage, punctuation, or style. We will discuss varying levels of usage: non-standard, colloquial, informal standard, and formal standard, since these are part of the culture in which the English language is used, and since our perceptions about what is “correct” in a particular situation reveal a great deal about our culture. It is easier, however, to understand rules of prescriptive grammar or usage if you understand the structure of English. Take, for example, that semicolon. It should be used to join complete sentences that express closely related ideas. It’s a very powerful mark of punctuation; you could say that it screams emphatically, “The second sentence is closely connected to the first!” That’s a stylistic matter. It helps, however, to understand what an English sentence is when you are figuring out where to use a semicolon.




2 responses to “Why study English Grammar?

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