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What is grammar good for?

31 Aug 2011
Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker singing "e;War!"e; in the film Rush Hour
Just ask Jackie Chan! "Grammar. Huh, yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"

Occasionally I write articles about grammar (like I did last week). I always feel a little weird writing about grammar, because, in general, I don't advocate studying grammar, particularly not in the beginning.

However, studying some grammar when you've already got some fundamentals in the language can be helpful!

Read more to find out how!

What isn't grammar study good for?

I started learning Polish by taking a course at the university. We spent all our time learning and practicing grammar rules. I always did well and got very good grades on the tests.

But after a year, I could hardly speak or understand any Polish! And when I did speak, it wasn't grammatically correct at all. :-)

Conscious study of grammar won't help you become proficient in a language, because language learning is an unconscious skill.

It wasn't until I started actually using Polish (by reading and listening to books) that I began to really speak Polish.

Now I can't even remember the grammar rules! I still make lots of mistakes but I speak a lot more grammatically than I did when I knew them well.

So, what is grammar good for?

Grammar can be a useful tool in some very specific situations!

Putting your mind at ease

As adults, it is very hard to accept things without questioning. We need to know why!

Why do I say, "lubię filmy" (I like movies) but "interesuję się filmami" (I'm interested in movies?)?

Honestly, you don't need to know why. With this word you say it like this and with another you say it like that. Just accept it! That's what children do when they learn a language.

But adults have problems with this. They need an answer and the grammar rules can provide one.

So read them when it bothers you, get your piece of mind and move on!

Helping you recognize patterns

Languages are made up of patterns. If you don't know anything about the language's grammar, it will be hard to know what to look for. You don't need to memorize any rules or take any tests, but just a quick overview of the grammar (like I made for Polish) can be very helpful.

As you learn the language better, occasionally take a look in a grammar book. It might help you recognize a pattern you've seen for a while but didn't quite pick up!

In writing

Grammar rules are very difficult to apply when speaking or listening to fluid speech. It happens too fast for conscious thought! When you are writing, you have plenty of time to think.

Knowing the grammar rules can help you correct mistakes in your writing which will make you seem smarter and more educated.

Using language above your level

Features of a given language are always naturally learned in a predictable order (called the order of acquisition). For example, English speaking children always learn to use the present progressing tense (-ing verbs) correctly before the plural of nouns.

If you haven't learned a particular language feature naturally yet, you can use the grammar rules to fake it!

This is very difficult to do in fluid speech and you might not be able to skip ten steps further than your unconscious language skill. But you might be able to do skip one or two.

I do this in Polish with the conditional tense (for example, "Zrobiłbym to" - I would do it). I still haven't acquired it naturally and can't use it or understand it without thinking. But most of the time I can sort of fake it. ;-)

What do you think? Is conscious study of grammar sometimes useful? Is it never useful? Or am I crazy and we should all be studying grammar every day? Write a comment a below!

Anonymous's picture

Hi David

This is one of the most concise treatises on the necessity of grammar study (or lack thereof!) I've read to date.

I was wondering if you would mind me re-posting it on my website with links back to your site?

Regards from currently sunny San Diego!


Posted by: David Martin (not verified) | Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 14:34
David Snopek's picture

Hi David!

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! Yeah, feel free to re-post. In fact, it would be an honor! I don't think anyone has ever wanted to do that before. :-)

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 14:46
Anonymous's picture

Okay, great! Thanks so much. I will notify you as soon as I've posted it, though I'm sure it'll ping you anyway:)

Posted by: David Martin (not verified) | Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 16:16