10

Please help me out over this dilemma. I can write proper and "grammatically correct" English, and I feel I have a good vocabulary. And I know for sure my English is good enough for someone who is not a native speaker.

But I was never serious about learning the "language of grammar"—the terms, definitions,etc.It never mattered to me in my line of work either as all that mattered was good skills in written and spoken English. But out of sheer concern that I can't even name the basic parts of speech, I've started learning formal English grammar rigorously and sincerely.

But it would motivate me much if you can answer this— Other than from an academic viewpoint, what are the practical benefits of learning formal English grammar? As long as one can write and speak proper, grammatically correct English, what's the point knowing what is a clause, what is a lexeme, what is inflection and all? I ask this as I barely get any time for academic pursuits after a day of work. Please bear with me if my question is a little strange. I am kinda new to this forum.

  • 2
    Are you a native speaker or ELL? – Mitch Mar 31 '14 at 16:26
  • 2
    It all depends on what you mean by "formal English grammar". There is an awful lot of incorrect information around under that label. Most native English speakers educated in Anglophone schools are totally ignorant like you, and you wouldn't believe some of the things they've been taught as "formal English grammar". So it matters whether you're a native speaker or not, and where your English knowledge comes from. – John Lawler Mar 31 '14 at 20:23
  • That said, if you're talking about real English grammar (not "formal", which is rarely defined, except by lawyers and diplomats for others of their ilk), then there is indeed some benefit in knowing it. But there's none in knowing more zombie rules than the next person. – John Lawler Mar 31 '14 at 20:25
  • 3
    If you are a non-native speaker, it can help organize your very formal learning of the language into rules "If X is a predicate nominative subjunctive dual, then it changes to Y in the presence of Z." And presumably that kind of formalism allows you to process the rules more easily. However, to extremely oversimplify, if you are a native speaker of English (or the language you're trying to speak better), then your mastery of the subtleties will probably be better taught by examples; the fancy terms will just be more to remember. – Mitch Mar 31 '14 at 21:50
  • 2
    "If you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?" - Clarence Darrow – Elliott Frisch Apr 3 '14 at 18:49
  • 1
    You're saying "English grammar" but the rest of your post sounds like you mean "the terminology used to refer to English grammar" or "the jargon related to English grammar". "Learning formal English grammar" to me means learning to speak/write grammatically correct English, which you say you can already do... – starsplusplus Apr 14 '14 at 8:35
9

As a native speaker, I can give you my take on this, but ultimately it will boil down to opinions.

Learning English grammar/syntax will increase your proficiency (and your vocabulary), especially in written English, whether you realize that or not right now. Your English is obviously good, but confidence is usually high at the beginning of something, drops the more you learn, then rises again to a degree the more you continue to learn. This alone, this realization that confidence can be unwarranted, is an incredibly important life lesson. (For example, there are many doctors who do not realize how relatively little medicine they know, because they are confident that they are good physicians. In an accountant, this characteristic might cost you money; in a doctor, it might cost you your health or even your life.) This fact is as old as the ancient philosophers themselves, and was put into apt words by Shakespeare: The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.

Knowing your language, its grammar and syntax, will also help you to understand/learn other languages more easily. It's hard to know how to conjugate verbs if you know neither what verbs are nor what conjugating is. It will also give you a certain appreciation of your language which you did not have before. That might be as minor as being able to avoid common mistakes, to greater appreciation of good writing (and poetry, etc.) Though I knew basic grammar before joining this site, I could not have told you, say, what the real difference between the simple past and the present perfect was. Having learned that, I'm much more aware of it when I read/write/speak.

Like any analytic exercise, learning grammar and syntax will help you to think more analytically. Learning to think more analytically will help you in trying to understand other things. It's a cycle, like dexterity, or exercise and strength.

Pragmatically, it boils down to what you like, want, and what is useful to you. If none of the above appeals to you, then my answer is only so much chaff, and I'm OK with that.

  • 2
    It was very nice of you to take the time to compose such a detailed and helpful answer for a complete stranger. "Though I knew basic grammar before joining this site, I could not have told you, say, what the real difference between the simple past and the present perfect was. Having learned that, I'm much more aware of it when I read/write/speak."That was straight and honest of you and that's enough reason for me to continue my present pursuit of grammar. @Mitch and @John— Thank you for you feedback too. – Newbie Apr 1 '14 at 2:02
3

Medica gave you a great answer!

For me, my foreign language teachers taught me just as much about my native English language as they did French & Latin.

Poor grammar and spelling are significant barriers to written communication. Imagine you want to translate a text online, but it is full of errors and slang. Online translators cannot handle most of those errors, so translating is difficult if not impossible.

  • That's been the normal experience for over a century in Anglophone schools. It used to be the case that anyone getting educated at the high school and college level took Latin as a matter of course. Since nobody can pick up Latin by speaking it, one had to learn the paradigms and the syntax. Then, when one looked at English with Latin-colored glasses, one had names and processes to apply. That's why had seen is called the "Past Perfect Tense"; because Latin actually did have such a tense and that construction is the closest English has to it. But now nobody Latin and the terminology ... – John Lawler Apr 6 '14 at 14:56
1

A good question, but difficult to answer. As a general answer I would say language is a complicated thing and an educated person is expected to know something about language and how a language system works.

When someone has to write a lot, I think of journalists or similar persons, hundreds of problems arise and such persons have to find solutions with dictionaries or grammars. But someone who does not have a sufficient knowledge of grammar can't use a grammar, because he does not understand the language of grammar. He can't even use the register of a grammar because he does not know the grammar terms.

If someone asks "What is the practical use of grammar, I can speak and write proper English, even if I don't know the simple grammar terms for the word classes." I would like to ask "How do you know that you speak and write proper English?

I think, if someone has interest in English, ie he reads or writes a lot, then necessarily a lot of language problems arise. And someone without grammar knowledge can't find answers to his questions on his own. If this person has children who ask him what is a noun or a verb and he can't explain it to his children they will consider him as a let-down. And, I think, he should be able to give better answers than the poor explanations that normally are given in grammar books for nouns and verbs.

Quite another question is what are the good reference works for English as to dictinaries and grammars. I think one sould be able to tell a good dictionary or grammar from a bad one. And I think one should be able to judge the usefulness of grammar terms. What is necessary and good and what is useless academic stuff. One should be able to translate unnecessary terms such as lexem, morphem, constituents into normal words or grammar terms or be able to invent one's own names.

1

Although your English is excellent, you feel you're missing out on something, that's why you're learning the parts of speech. Is this worthwhile? Well, unless you're thinking of teaching English, I'm not sure that this is a good use of your precious time.

If you wanted to be a better driver, would you study mechanics, or advanced driving?

We tend to forget that we learn our first language orally, through our ears rather than through our eyes. We are young, illiterate, uneducated, unreasonable and unsophisticated, yet before we can read or write, we are already talking. Most people never know the grammar of their mother tongue, but that doesn't stop them talking! We also forget that humans have been talking for tens of thousands of years whereas writing is a relatively recent invention. Language is oral.

I think that the reason we study grammar is because there were no native speakers around to teach us Greek and Latin. Grammar is a bit of a hangover from that time. I'm not saying studying grammar is not rewarding, illuminating and a fast track into a language, it's just that it is so different from the way we learn our mother tongue that it is difficult not to be sceptical as to its real utility.

In your position and at your level, I might be inclined to study rhetoric rather than grammar.

  • You make some perceptive distinctions about the difference between learning grammar academically (and the utility thereof) versus the way people absorb the grammar of their native tongue in practice. In my opinion, too much effort is expended in schools on teaching grammar as an academic subject -- mostly because the acquisition of that information, however useless it is in practice, is easily measured -- versus encouraging a love of reading, which will automatically transmit an intuitive feel for the grammar of the language. – Erik Kowal Jul 17 '14 at 5:12
0

I think @medica has nailed it very well. I would only add that at some point, it may help you to impress someone, when it's important to do so: A job interview, a date, etc..

No, I'm not joking - it's true.

  • 1
    Sorry about the late reply.Your answer might be short and simple, but you have made a very real-life observation. It really impresses people at important times. It's hard to explain, but I am sure you know what I am trying to tell :-) . Funny, but people respect you if the lines you write are precise, exact and crisp. – Newbie Sep 14 '14 at 10:15
  • @Newbie - it is not difficult to understand: When you speak correctly and articulately, you sound intelligent and credible - someone who is well educated and can think clearly. Our words reflect and represent our thoughts and modes of thinking to others. No great mystery there. – Vector Jul 18 '17 at 13:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .