Why learn about English grammar?

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Why learn about grammar?

Using the English language is a skill just like any other. There are many different ways of knowing about the things we do – and the more we know about something the better we generally do it. Think about using this website – you know how to navigate between pages but that doesn't mean that you know how the coding behind the pages is constructed, or that you could fix any software problems that might arise. Could you write a website yourself? Understanding grammar means learning the system that underlies the English language. Learning about English grammar will give you insight into the way the language works, and sometimes doesn't work, and enable you to:


1. Knowing about language

2. Confidence in using written English

3. Grammar and the editing process

4. Varieties of English

5. When is non-standard totally right?

Related pages


Knowing about language

Knowing about language is called 'metalinguistic knowledge'. Most adults know how to drive a car but how much are we aware of how it works?

At an advanced level you're either an auto-mechanic or a linguist!

Confidence in using written English

Read the following comments:

Imagine these comments are about one of your essays. How would these comments make you feel? Intimidated, annoyed, hopeless, resigned, frustrated, bored, pleased, embarrassed?

These comments all refer to basic problems that develop during the writing process. They are normal everyday issues that we all have to deal with as writers. But, unless we have a framework for understanding these comments – unless we know what they're about and how to fix them – they can seem overwhelming and very discouraging.

If this is you, then take heart. Most of the barriers between understanding these comments and addressing them confidently boil down to two basic issues:

1. understanding the terminology involved, and

2. having a conceptual map to relate them to.

After all, it's pretty hard to sort out your use of 'tense' if you're not even sure what tense is, right?

By working through the materials presented in this web resource you should have the means to tackle any problem with grammar that your audience of readers throws at you.

When you work through the exercises for this section, you'll get a clearer idea of how understanding grammatical concepts allows you to think critically about the choices you make in using English.

Grammar and the editing process

The outline of English grammar presented here is essentially a description of Standard English. Standard English is the variety normally taught in schools, used in the mainstream media and in writing in general.

As you develop an understanding of English grammar it will become increasingly easy to distinguish between a range of different problems in your writing and the writing of others. This is an important analytical skill. It is useful to distinguish between three types of sentences:

1. Grammatical sentences are sentences that are easy to parse and intuitively correct.

2. Ungrammatical sentences are not easy to parse and are intuitively wrong.

3. Semantically troubling sentences are grammatical and therefore parsable but they do not make sense. They are 'wrong' in some sense – but 'valid' in the tests we use here.

Consider the following examples:

Simone sneezed because she'd eaten too much pepper. [fine]

The box collapsed because it had eaten too much pepper. [semantically anomalous]

Box collapse eat much pepper. [ungrammatical]

Box-collapsing is hazardous to your health. [semantically challenging but actually ok]

Cats like hazardous to your health. [ungrammatical]

Jack is a black-belt in washing dishes. [semantically challenging but ok]

Varieties of English

English is actually spoken in a great many varieties around the world. The type of Standard English used in Australia is not the same as the Standard English of the United States. There are three parameters for distinguishing different varieties of English. These are:

As well as identifying regional standards (Australian English versus British English) we can recognise regional dialects (Norwich English or the variety of English spoken in the southern areas of the United States) and social dialects (Cultivated versus Broad Australian English). All of these varieties can be defined by mapping the distinctive features of phonology, lexicon and (usually to a lesser extent) grammar of particular social groups who are distinguished on the basis of social characteristics such as location, socio-economic status, ethnicity and so on.

Just how much variation is appropriate for a particular text will vary depending on the purpose of the text, the audience and the feelings of the writer. Ideally, as a writer, the key is to be able to recognise these features in your written language and make choices about how you use them.

When is non-standard totally right?

So Standard English is a kind of norm that we can approximate, imitate or even ignore...

When we think about language as it is actually used, we take what is known as a descriptive approach. When taking this approach we observe and report what we see and hear without making personal value judgements about it. In this approach we may also observe the value judgements of others.

On the other hand, when we think about Standard English, we are aligning ourselves with a prescriptive approach. In this approach there is no room for reflection about the values attached to different varieties – in fact there are only two varieties – the good one and the bad one!

School teachers, the stricter kind of grandmother, copyeditors and people who mark essays [insert your personal stickler here] typically take a more prescriptive approach because they are concerned with the relationship between your language and the standard. They know what is right and wrong as far as Standard English grammar goes they attempt to enforce these norms.

The degree of approximation to Standard English that seems appropriate can vary according to the context. This is particularly so when we think about whether a formal or informal style is being used. (An obvious indicator of an informal style in writing is the use of contractions.)

It is useful to think about formal and informal English as ends of a continuum as it is possible to make quite subtle modifications to style.

continuum with very formal on left end and very informal on right end

One way to distinguish styles from dialects is to reflect on the fact that most people are able to use English in more or less formal ways regardless of the dialect they speak. This is because instruction in an educational setting is often largely about teaching people the standard version of the language. However, switching between dialects is a skill that one develops either as a long term resident of a new place or because a person is a talented mimic. Not everyone is able to consciously control their pronunciation to this extent.

clipboard image: hyperlink to multiple choice quiz

Test yourself:
Why learn about grammar?

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