Education Commentary

Learning Grammar: A Fascinating But ‘Useless’ Exercise

By Maurice Wolfthal — November 05, 1986 5 min read

I admit it. I loved to diagram sentences in the 10th grade. And the French pleonastic “ne” held a special charm for me. In Spanish, the impersonal reflexive verbs were a particular delight. I still marvel at the survival of the subjunctive in such useful expressions as, ''Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

But despite this enjoyment, I’ve always felt that my teachers were wrong to insist on the utility of learning grammar. Indeed, there are still teachers who devote some part of every lesson to correcting the grammatical errors of their students. There are others who think nothing of spending two or three months solely on the parts of speech. If at least they loved grammar, they could be forgiven. But it was in the same tone that a parent says, ''Eat your spinach. It’s vile, but you need it,” that I recently heard an English teacher announce, “I don’t let my students do any writing until they know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.”

Traditional English teachers are not alone in succumbing to this utilitarian myth. The back-to-basics movement, which seems to bathe any subjects taught 100 years ago in a magic aura, has made converts to grammar out of teachers of remedial reading and remedial writing as well.

What a vain hope, that by parsing sentences we can turn scribblers into stylists. What a fruitless illusion, that pronouns and paradigms can transform American dialects into the King’s English. And what utter nonsense to think that analysis of language will spark the joy of books. We might as well teach infants how to walk by drawing anatomical charts and lecturing them on the muscles and bones of the legs and feet.

Equally absurd is the claim that the study of grammar can endow us--almost alchemically--with reasoning ability. The same has been said of geometry and Latin, but an absolute absence of proof leads us to conclude that neither triangles nor Caesar’s Commentaries, nor even gerunds, can save us from our irrationality. Alas, grammarians are no more logical than the rest of us.

The overrated status that grammar still enjoys stems in large part from its pivotal importance in the Latin curriculum of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the Catholic Church, school meant grammar school, at least as far back as the 8th century, when the local bishop of East Anglia helped King Sigbert start a school “in which boys could learn grammar.” The centrality of grammar in the medieval curriculum is further indicated by a 13th-century French work, Image du Monde, published in an English translation by William Caxton in the 1480’s: ''The first of the seven sciences is grammar . . . without which all other sciences are of little recommendation . . . for grammar is the foundation and the beginning of learning . . . . “

In America, the first public schools were Latin grammar schools, then English grammar schools, and modem test designers have not failed to perpetuate the glory of grammar.

If one wanted to assess children’s language, it would be reasonable to tape-record a large sample of their speech, or ask them to write a composition or two. But a standardized test currently in use purports to evaluate “language” by asking questions on prepositions, mass and non-count nouns, compound subjects, and noun determiners.

Linguists, of course, are unanimous in their view that knowing about a language is not the same as knowing a language. We learn our native tongue in a gradual, natural way that occurs in the context of real experiences from the first day of life. We pick up the features of our speech from our parents, siblings, peers, television ... and teachers: not from the lessons that teachers give us on plurals and predicates, but from the way that they actually speak.

If these ideas seem radical or new, let us note that Erasmus, one of the great figures of the Renaissance, held similar views: ''I have no patience with the stupidity of the average teacher of grammar who wastes precious years in hammering rules into children’s heads. For it is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language, but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by copious reading of the best authors.”

Similarly, Montaigne recounts how he had become fluent in Latin by the age of 6 through the efforts of a tutor who spoke to him in no other language. Thus he learned “without art, without book, without grammar or rules, without whipping, and without tears.” By contrast, the formal instruction that he later received in school was so artificial that ''my Latin promptly degenerated, and since then, for lack of practice, I have lost all use of it.”

As long ago as the 17th century, the “transfer of training” claim made for Latin was rejected by John Locke. He also recommended that the teaching of grammar be limited to those few whose style required elegance. For the rest of us, however, “Men learn languages for the ordinary discourse of society and communication of thoughts in common life, without any farther design in the use of them. And for this purpose the original way of learning a language by conversation not only serves well enough, but is to be preferred as the most expedite, proper, and natural.”

Rousseau, too, argued against the prevailing emphasis on grammar: ''It is an intolerable piece of pedantry and most superfluous attention to detail to make a point of correcting all children’s little sins against customary expression, for they always cure themselves with time. Always speak correctly before them, let them never be so happy with anyone as with you, and be sure that their speech will be imperceptibly modeled upon yours without any correction on your part.”

All of which is not to say that grammar should not be taught or cannot be enjoyed. But we should drop all pretense as to its usefulness. Instead, let us look upon it in the same way as the eminent grammarian Otto Jespersen, who wrote in 1910: ''A great many people seem to think that the study of grammar is a very dry subject indeed but that it is extremely useful, assisting the pupils in writing and speaking the language in question. Now I hold the exactly opposite view. I think that the study of grammar is really more or less useless, but that it is extremely fascinating.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 1986 edition of Education Week