I like grammar.

I like knowing when things are right or wrong, finding mistakes, and fixing them. Taking a red pen to a paper and destroying it in the name of perfection is a hobby of mine. (One of the perks of being the only English major on your dorm floor is that there is never a shortage of papers to edit. After I finish writing this, actually, I plan on editing my roommate’s paper! For fun!!) I’m not perfect, of course, but I recognize a lot of mistakes–and not because I’ve had much formal training. This knowledge that native speakers have of their language–just because they speak and read it–is what scholars call tacit knowledge. Most of my grammatical knowledge is tacit, but I did learn it somewhere–why else would I have so much of it?

I have three theories as to the origins of my grammatical knowledge. The first is that I’ve always been a voracious reader. Once I learned to read, I never looked back. By sixth grade, I was reading an average of five novels per week. (It was actually problematic.) By almost over-exposing myself to literature, I gained tacit knowledge of correct and incorrect grammar.

My second theory is that studying other languages aided my understanding of English. By learning grammar for another language, I became more aware of the grammar in my own language. I took two years of Latin in middle school, and am currently minoring in French, so I am constantly facing the mystery of clauses, pronouns, participles, tenses, and gerunds.

My third theory is the fact that I was introduced to proper English grammar in high school. There’s a lot controversy surrounding the idea of teaching grammar in schools; even after 75 years of research, scholars can’t decide if teaching grammar is helpful or not. It’s true that many of my classmates hated learning these rules, but I did find them to be helpful. Dull? Certainly. But, having dealt with English for years, the short lessons that prefaced each English class did more good than harm. If I had learned these things in 6th grade, the stress of making mistakes probably would’ve paralyzed me. But by senior year, tacit knowledge wasn’t enough.

In the end, I think it’s necessary to learn the “proper” rules of grammar, but I think that it should be truly focused on later in education. By all means correct mistakes from the beginning, but most middle schoolers could care less about the difference between a gerund and a past participle. It’s hard enough to get adults to care… which is probably why so few college students graduate with the ability to write.

2 thoughts on “grammar

  1. I think it is important that young kids build a strong foundation with grammar because it is something that is hard to just pick up later in life. Especially because we use it for everything from comprhending reading, writing and speech. I do agree that it can be a snooze fest when you are young.


  2. Libby, I agree with all three of your theories but especially the one about how studying a second language improves your knowledge of grammar. I don’t think I understood much about English grammar until I took Spanish and French in college. Students who study Latin and Greek also gain a great deal of grammatical knowledge as well as vocabulary. I’ve often thought that instead of offering grammar classes to English majors we ought to require them to study another language.


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