Why study grammar?

In two earlier posts, we examined the grammar of the English sentence – both the unconscious knowledge of native speakers (What is grammar?) and the conscious application of grammar to the analysis of sentences through diagramming or linguistic trees (Parsing the English Sentence).

Because native English speakers follow the rules of English grammar mostly unconsciously, they can recognize the following two sentences as begin grammatically correct even if they do not make sense:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

The rumfrums prattly biggled the pooba.

As we saw before, this knowledge allows us to know a great deal about how an English sentence is structured by its use of word order and word inflections or endings. Of course, as discussed in the post on choosing the correct verb form, we saw that there are variations in other versions or vernaculars of English, Standard English being the version that is in power and used in the public sphere. This blog has devoted quite a few posts on “errors,” those deviations from Standard English conventions in writing and usage. However, what may be marked as errors, such as with verb form in Standard English may be preferred or required forms in another variety, such as the Black English variety. (The other versions are not “sub-standard,” but have their own consistent syntax and rules for usage.)

In order to analyze a sentence, as when we parse it, we need to make those rules conscious, and these are the rules of Standard English, which is taught in schools, used for communication (especially written), and used in  business, industry, professions, government, and academia.

Also, a standard grammar allows us to communicate with others across barriers of personality, region, class, or ethnic origin. For instance, such rules about capitalization, spacing, and punctuation aid communication.

Take the phrase NOWHEREISWATER. How would you “read” (or format) this? 

Click here to check your answer.

 

The use of capitalization and end punctuation (period) would show that it is a sentence, and the choices you made about spacing would make a difference to you if you were lost in a desert.

Is it necessary for everyone to learn traditional English grammar and usage?

Since most professions require Standard English, it would seem important to know the rules in order to meet those conventions. We discussed how/seen in this blog how “errors” can lessen an author’s (or employee’s) credibility and effectiveness.

For writers, Darcy Pattison says, “Yes, you need to know conventional grammar rules. You need to be able to write a compound, complex sentence of 100+ words and correctly punctuate it.”

Do you even know what a compound, complex sentence is?

Click here for an example.

 

Writing is not an innate ability like language. As Martha Kolln puts it, “. . . unlike speaking and listening and thinking, the skills of reading and writing are not intuitive behaviors; they are learned. And as with all learned behaviors, people vary widely in their ability to perform them” (Rhetorical Grammar 25).

Hence, writers vary not only in their ability to produce (quality and quantity), but, depending on their experience As several posts here have noted, even professional writers make mistakes, some similar to college students, though often less frequent. Experienced writer do make some mistakes that are rarely made by less experienced writers, such as verbiage and structural ambiguity. These particular errors have been attributed to the larger vocabulary and increased fluidity of the professional writers, who have more tools to express their ideas or who are more enamored of their own writing.

Interestingly, the occurrence of fragments is an error common among both groups, but fragments are found in the writing of professional at a rate of more than twice in that of the beginning writers.  Here is where maturity and experience, especially an attention to rhetorical style, may enter into the equation.

Though instructors at most levels of the educational system warn against the grave error of fragments which are the result of punctuation mistakes (most student errors), fragments can be used for their stylistic effect, particularly in fiction. LeTourneau calls this “stylistic grammar,” which teaches “how grammatical choices can be manipulated in writing to create more varied and stylistically mature sentences.”  (You can see examples of how punctuation and different constructions are used for stylistic or rhetorical effect, such as the post on punctuating compound sentences or the one on sentence structure and rhythm.)

Pattison argues that a writer needs to be confident of the basics like grammar and punctuation: “When you know how to put any kind of sentence together correctly—or fix it while editing—you’ll feel free to experiment” and “[I]t’s a dual pathway, one of learning conventions and then breaking them.” It’s the ability to break the rules that experienced writers bring to their compositions.

As Beth Lewis writes, “Don’t be afraid to break the rules, especially grammar. If you know the rules, you can smash them apart and put them back together however you like, that’s the fun of writing. You’re creating a world, populating it, you’re creating a piece of that world’s history and future, that’s what writing is and why it’s so wonderful. Break the rules, bend them, but remember, when you really think about it, you’ll see that in truth, there are no rules.” Lewis breaks some rules herself in this passage.

Click here to see one rule she breaks.

 

Not everyone agrees that learning grammar makes a difference in writing. Over the past thirty years, there has been quite a controversy over the teaching of grammar, so much so that formal grammar instruction was stopped or sporadic, certainly not consistent or uniform. We’ll look at the history of grammar instruction and its controversy in a future post.

But what are writers to do? Why study grammar? The answer will vary with each individual. The desire and effort to learn grammar and usage will depend on how each one feels about their writing and their ability to edit and revise it; it will depend on their ability to navigate language and use sentence construction and the conventions of usage to their rhetorical purposes.

(Some material derived from Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Darcy Pattison; Beth Lewis.)

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