The Grammarphobia Blog

Grammar Moses

Q: I’m writing a story for my college newspaper about where grammar comes from and how it’s evolving. As someone who has struggled with the rules of English, I want to find out why grammar is so embedded in our language and why it’s so necessary.

A: That’s a tall order. I can’t do the subject justice in a blog entry, but I can offer a few random thoughts that you may find useful.

We all help define what “proper” English is. It’s merely a set of conventions to make communication easier and more sensible.

Vocabulary changes very quickly, especially in the age of the Internet. Style and usage, documented in dictionaries, usage manuals, and stylebooks, evolve and change slowly over the years as public tastes come and go.

The foundations of grammar, however, are much more resistant to change. These include things like subject/verb agreement, how we form plurals, the case of pronouns (object vs. subject, for example), and so on. All these are very resistant to change, and for a good reason. Grammar is a communications tool, not a fashion accessory that is one flavor today and another tomorrow.

Some have suggested that “proper” grammar is elitist. I disagree. I come from a working-class family in which no one before me had attended college. By no means can my origins be considered elitist or “dominant class.” On the contrary.

But the one thing that was available to me, as well as to the more privileged youngsters in my Midwestern community, was a public education that gave me access to a good grounding in English grammar and composition. (Of course, this was back when grammar was actually taught in school!) I went on to become a journalist, an editor at the New York Times, and finally an author of books about language.

In the world we live in, smart kids have to know several grammars, each one with complex rules. And believe me, they do. We do youngsters a grave disservice when we label particular grammars as “elitist” or “street” or “urban” or “white” or “black.” Some kids simply have to know them all. Once they do, nothing can stop them. They must be able to think, write, read, and speak in several languages.

It’s a mistake to let any child suspect that a certain level of learning is out of his reach. That’s what we do when we expect less of some children than we do of others. Human children are geniuses at soaking up language, and we should expect the max from them, from the very earliest ages.

Grammatical quibbles may seem silly, and some of them are! But what isn’t silly is that communication is important. The ability to read and to communicate one’s thoughts unambiguously in clear English is the best gift we can pass on to any child, no matter where he or she comes from. If this is elitism, so be it. It’s elitism that should belong to everyone, and that can belong to everyone.

Grammar has not been considered an important subject in American public schools for at least the past 30 years. (Ironically, children all over the world are now learning English grammar: in China, Japan, the Scandinavian countries, India, everywhere but here.) The best way a kid in the public schools these days can get a solid grounding in English grammar is to study Spanish, French, Latin, or German. He will learn that language in general has a meaningful structure, roots that are clues to vocabulary, and so on. It’s also important to read! Children who read have better vocabularies and a better grasp of sentence structure than children who don’t.

This is a bit rambling and repetitive, and if I had more time it would be more useful to you, no doubt. But I hope it helps.

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