Learn Grammar; I didn't!

Summary: Should grammar be taught to native speakers or not?

On reflection, I couldn't be a worse host for an English language website.

I started my schooling as the majority did in my area, at the local primary school. I then went to the local secondary school and received grades in English, Maths, Physics, Biology, Geography, Art, Graphical Communication and Philosophy of Religion. I'll not bore you with the 'A' levels and above.

Notice the ambiguous English qualification above. It was, in truth, a course dedicated to reading "Lord of the flies" and other gems, and a weak attempt at getting us to comprehend them. Luckily my middle-class upbringing gave me a head start as I was already acquainted with the sort of language these books used and had read similar books before. I will never be able to put that particular course down as much as I desire to because, for all its faults, it introduced me to Steinbeck, Malkovich and the wonders of Lenny, mice and pockets.

My education never included one iota of grammar. Lynn Truss points out in "Eats, shoots and leaves" that many people were excused from the rigours of learning English grammar during their schooling over the last 30 or so years because the majority of decision-makers decided one day that it might hinder imagination and expression (so what, I ask, happened to all those expressive and imaginative people before the ruling?).

Anyway, my point is that I have never received any form of formal English language education, and a great deal of native speakers my age would be able to claim the same.

What does this imply for the future of the language, I wonder?

I have managed to pick up a few pointers from my involvement in the UsingEnglish project I started up with TDOL about 10 years ago, but I've never made an effort to learn about what our site and tools teach. Sure, some of it has rubbed off, but in my experience it takes a degree of will and determination to learn the finer points of a language, and frankly I don't have the time to do so. Does this mean that I'm forever cast into the pit alongside other grammar hooligans and others that repeatedly misuse their own language through naievity and lack of any sort of drive to learn that particular topic?

I wonder, does the current education policy of displacing grammar for more sexy topics mean that we, as native speakers, are placing the future of our language in the hands of NNES?

Does it actually matter that I've no idea what a non-defining relative clause is in the real world? No, it doesn't, because I've yet to be tested by anyone on that particular subject in my 30+ years on this Earth.

So why does it matter to me?

Well, I guess that as host of this forum, and webmaster of UsingEnglish.com, my eyes have been opened. There is a whole world of argument and intrigue out there about matters as surreal as where a particular comma goes and whether someone should have used that semi-colon. There is the ability to master an understanding of a language that is "in me" already (and therefore I have a head start). But most importantly, there is the choice of expression available to a well versed grammarian that is not available to Joe Bloggs, the writer.

My formal grammar is still poor, and I've no expectation that it will improve drastically, and I blame this on my schooling. I don't have the choices of expression that grammarians do.

What is your experience with learning English grammar? Did you learn it at school or did you teach yourself?

How has it enabled your life (if at all)?

Here endeth my monologue.


This entry was originally from our blog, which has now been discontinued. Our readers contributed a number of interesting comments representing a variety of opinions on the topic, which we've copied in below. If you would like to discuss this further, please post your comments in our forum:


John defaye | January 15, 2004 9:05 PM
I would say my language is merely made up of reading and writing on the internet and learning off other people as I went along, the advancing technology of spell checkers, grammar checkers and all the rest have helped me - but never making me a professional. As, I'm still a teenager, writing coursework, And trying to find out what the heck a hyphen means! (Though I use them a lot of write to people, I never really know If I've been correctly using it).

Victor Dias | January 19, 2004 8:46 PM
Well, since I started learning Enlglish (that was when I was 10) I have been taught grammar. I do not know if it varies from country to country but at least in Brazil most English Schools and even primary and secondary schools teach you grammar. However, not always did I agree with my teacher and I guess what has made me have a fairly nice knowledge of grammar is the fact that I am very curious and whenever I have a doubt I try to find out the answer to it. Reading and listing to things in English also helps a lot. The more you are in contact with a language the better it is. I also like to read grammar books, which might have been a crucial factor. Also the will to speak as well as a native speaker, although that is very hard to achieve, might make a big difference.

tdol | January 23, 2004 4:20 AM
You seem to have managed it, Victor. ;-)

italianbro | February 2, 2004 10:56 PM
A while ago, just before the gloomy days of war with Iraq were going to start, I remember reading an article, one of the many published in those days, overflowing with cheap rhetoric with the intention to persuade the population that what was going to happen was morally right. Almost a year now, and still the same rhetoric is uttered by those same harlots, flatterers and seducers. For Plato rhetoric was an unnecessary tool, whereas for Aristotle was an available means of persuasion, and persuasion is the main cause for all its use today, as it was in the ancient days, but in those days the power of the omens were also greatly valued and if the chickens did not eat then war would never start, mind you, today the only thing a chicken brings is a bit of flu, but rhetoric continues to be popular as ever. Why? Why do we need such a style?? What is in rhetoric that we are so fond of? And why is that if some one will tell us something with a straightforwardly approach we will just find it boring? But the more flowery a prose we will come across, and the more enthusiastic about we will become? Not only we need to be articulate and proficient in the use of the language, but to be booming today, we need to have wit and a particular mastery in moulding and chiselling the language as a Hellenistic sculptor shaped its Venus so that it would stand upright and beautiful.

Panda | February 6, 2004 7:50 AM
It really depends on what you learn English for. Majored in English language, I had to study its grammar systematically because I may work as a language teacher. So grammar learning is very necessary for those who want to become a professional in English. For mojority of people learning English is for better communication while our world is more open up and globalized in these days. You may just need one year to be good at communicating in English but it may take years for you to know the language systematically. So why spend more time and energy to learn grammar while you can be understood well enough in speaking? I suggest that you go back to grammar after you can speak the language. I believe grammar help you better in this way. At least you can enjoy learning some English before your mind is screwed up by grammar rules, which forces you to give up at early stage.

Peter | February 11, 2004 11:10 AM
I count myself fortunate in that I went to school in the 30s and 40s and learned English Grammar. I enjoyed the exercises of analysis and parsing and was a voracious reader. I find it sad that English teachers today have little if any grasp of the structure and rules of our language.

John Tatum | April 9, 2004 11:03 AM
Yes, I have to agree with Panda. If you are learning English as a Second Language, grammar could be a stumbling block that might just cause you to quit before you come close to being fluent! I say get the basics of grammar and spelling and don't worry too much about either. However, if time permits I think a continuous practical study is a worthy consideration. For example, check spelling when you are in doubt when doing actual writing yourself. Also, when writing formal papers always check your grammar...this way you learn from doing which has always been the best way to learn...and also, learn from success rather than failure! Many grammar classes try to build on failure and it is a no win situation!

penny brewer | April 19, 2005 10:46 PM
It is quite hilarious that I thought I spoke english well, simply because I speak with a middle class accent.

The last four weeks of learning to teaching english as a foreign language have put me in an embarrassing situation.

I have forgotten or was not taught any grammar. I use incorrect tenses and so on. However, I very happily put down the americanisms.

At present I am learning english and spanish

Jacqueline | September 14, 2005 4:16 PM
Interesting article.

I have learned English while I attended school in Holland. However, you probably know how that goes when you have to go to school: you only learn the necessities to pass the exam and then forget what you've learned. The same happened to me.

Till I ended up in the UK for 10 months and love it so much that I became an Anglophile. I would class my English level as higher-intermediate, however, my grammar is next to none. All the English I use is instinctive and I wouldn't really know any rules behind it.

Now that I am preparing for the CAE though, I though see this as a big problem. Especially because I want to become a TOEFL some day. The only thing I can do now is to start learning grammar from scratch on top of what I already know . As I will have to know and be able to explain grammar when I start teaching...

Simon | February 26, 2006 4:31 PM
I always wondered if it was just me who was never even taught how to use punctuation, let alone learn what a clause is.

How on earth could decision makers believe that not explaining the structure and technical logistics of language would not matter? Though I understand intuitively how to use most of these things, it makes learning a foreign language extremely difficult when conversation turns to infinitives, adverbs, pronouns, subordinate clauses etc etc!

We spent the largest part of my high-school 11-16 years coming up with pretty, colourful schemes for 'Theme parks', or ridiculous childish 'business plans' and the like; instead of being equipped with useful tools to help us understand the English language that our subject was SUPPOSED to be about!

xalid | March 11, 2006 1:37 PM
I always forget what i learnt. because I'm not in
a english language place.what i must to do to reach a bettter results?

Carmelilla | June 16, 2008 8:49 AM
Just thought I'd put my 'tuppence worth' into this thresd....

I too studied 'Lord of the Flies' at A level and 'Of Mice and Men' at Ordinary grade. I wasn't taught any grammar either (born 1971). It was all 'write about your impressions'- so soft.

I don't tend to make grammar mistakes - so I suppose their method worked for using the language. That said, I do feel my generation were ripped off by our English teachers. Wasn't it their job to impart what they knew? Would they have liked to have been without their grammar knowledge? What was the methodology they were following? What's the current situation in UK schools - have they gone full circle?

I find it terribly difficult to explain grammar to my ESL students, and find the more advanced students know more about English grammar than I do. My lesson preps take ages but Im now in my second year of teaching English and it's getting a lot easier.

I feel like I'm on the outside of some select club and often feel horribly tense before classes with complex grammar content.

Rant over - best get back to learning about participle clauses for my 4 pm class!!!!

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