Does teaching structured grammar make better writers?
Lie or lay?
Prisca and me, or Prisca and I?
Bless our heart, or bless our hearts?
Do these kinds of questions drive you crazy? You’re not alone. Lots of picky people care about proper grammar, so much so they correct you when you speak and smile smugly at their proper erudition.
But I’m not one of them.
The rote study of grammar is one of those subject areas I’ve avoided most of my life. I’ve studied five languages, spoke French well enough to study at a French university and learned Arabic well enough to live in Morocco. I worked as a senior editor for a magazine, ghostwrote a number of short books and was a contributing editor to another magazine.
With all of these opportunities to make grammatical mistakes, you’d think that I’d be an expert, ready to throw down technical vocabulary like participles and subordinate clauses with the best of ’em. You’d think I’d love grammar and would be as enthusiastic to promote it as the next English teacher.
The technical side of grammar isn’t what draws me to writing or learning languages.
As a native speaker, my grasp of grammar is largely intuitive. I speak according to my ear, not according to a prescribed set of rules. When in doubt, I consult grammar reference books. I’ve learned a lot about habits in grammar from grammar check in Word, for example (which is not always accurate so I’m provoked to reevaluate the grammatical choice and see if I agree).
What has happened for me over time, though, is that because of learning to speak foreign languages, I’ve been introduced to the structure of language and find that I can address my questions to grammar reference books without getting completely lost. I’ve absorbed how verb tenses work, what a clause is, how adverbs and adjectives modify nouns and verbs, what an article does and more.
I learned how to avoid ending sentences with prepositions in English by learning how to do it in French, for instance.
My kids, who have been raised with my lackadaisical approach to grammar, have shown an interesting development as they encounter foreign languages. The older two (19 and 16) were raised with dictation and copywork. We did three years of grammar total. They tell me today that they don’t think they really grasped the nuances of grammar until they studied Klingon (older one) and French (younger one). My next child (14) is studying Spanish. He and I did some grammar together in English, but it wasn’t until he started working on Spanish that he retained any of it. Suddenly he is saying, “Oh, I see how the verb thing works.”
The secret for us: learning a foreign language!
I studied biblical Greek with Noah last fall. Some of the students in our college class lamented the fact that they had not paid attention in English grammar class because they needed a grasp of grammar for Greek. But Noah and I chuckled. We knew that the way we had learned grammar was through foreign language itself. These students would learn what they needed to know in Greek. That’s when they’d get it for English.
So if you find that the study of grammar is a tedious chore in your household, that no one seems to retain it, I do have a recommendation for you. Learn a foreign language. Find someone to teach you and your kids.
You’ll get an appreciation for English grammar thrown into the bargain.
(Just as an aside – my oldest son, Noah, who did not like Winston grammar or dictation is about to enter the linguistics program at University of Cincinnati. He can’t get enough of grammar now. :))
The Groovy Grammar Workshop empowers parents to implement a natural approach to teaching grammar and stands the whole concept of grammar on its head. Rather than studying terminology and dissecting sentences, students are encouraged to play with language, to explore how words bump up against each other and generate meaning.