English Grammar in One Lesson
Grammar is the worst-taught subject in the history of education*.
I can’t prove this statistically, but I’m convinced it’s true nonetheless,based on the following personal observations:
1) We teach grammar over and over throughout a typical student’s education. We start in early elementary and continue teaching grammar until they are seniors in high school, this despite the fact that basic grammar could easily be taught in a single semester.
2) Despite this endless repetition, kids still don’t understand grammar. In my ten years of public school education, I almost always found students to be ignorant of the most basic grammar concepts.
3) Even educated people think of themselves as bad at grammar. Most people I know lack confidence about their use of grammar. Few could define terms like transitive verb, subordinate clause, or antecedent.
4) A significant percentage of people who consider themselves good at grammar aren’t. Between my blog and my Facebook page, I continually run into people who describe themselves as grammar snobs, yet clearly misunderstand the whats and whys of grammar.
There are lots of plausible reasons for why we teach/learn grammar so poorly. One is that we make it more complicated than it need be. We do that by conflating grammar and usage, when we should keep them separate. Let’s define grammar as the analytical study of how words and word groups create meaning. And let’s think of usage as the use of syntax and grammatical structures to form meaning.
In other words, think of grammar as a purely analytical subject akin to anatomy. It should deal only with the various structures of language, their names, and how they work together.
Usage is more like construction–learning to use the parts of grammar to construct meaning and avoid errors that hinder communication.
Grammar is like taking apart a car engine to understand how it works. Usage is like driving the car.
I just think if we all knew the parts well, it would easier to understand the problems that come with usage.
If you think of grammar like this, you wouldn’t teach subject/verb agreement or address the various problems writers have with pronoun case. Those are usage issues that come later. Grammar is (should be?) just about learning the vocabulary of language–learning what a subject and a verb is and what the various pronoun cases are.
If you could keep grammar focused like that, you could teach it quickly and (I think) effectively. All of grammar can be summed up like this:
There are eight parts of speech: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. All our words fit into one of these categories. This should be taught first.
The sentence parts are simple: subject, predicate, and–in some cases–complement. This overlaps with parts of speech because simple subjects are always nouns or pronouns and simple predicates are always verbs. Complements can consist of several different parts of speech.
There are only two basic word groups: phrases and clauses. These are divided into more specific groups of course, but there’s really only two. Word groups function just like individual parts of speech and can function as any of the sentence parts too, which is why all three intersect.
Then there are verbs–the most challenging of the parts of speech because they alone can change form and tense. That’s why verbs has its own zone connected to parts of speech.
That’s it: eight parts of speech, three sentence parts, two word groups, and a bunch of verb tenses. That’s all there is to English grammar. You can get very granular, of course, but it shouldn’t be that hard to teach our students this broad concept of how our language works, should it?
*I’m speaking of education in the U.S., though I suspect things are not much different in the rest of the English-speaking world.
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Thank you for the easy explanation, I am an esl teacher in India, and I found your explanation simple for me to understand, that makes it easier for me to explain to students.
Very well said, Brian. Your article explains very well why our program is set up the way it is. We get the horse ready (teach the grammar … as you define it) and then hook the cart to it (teach the usage, punctuation, and mechanics issues). We get it over with and out of the way so that great writing teachers like you can take a student who at least knows his mechanics and teach that student to write well-structured, fluent papers. CHEERS!
You have done a good work….. I been looking for this….Thanks a lot.
Brian, thanks for the concise and yet powerful grammar lesson. Great overview.
Also thanks for posting my article as a WriteAtHome blog. I’m honored!