Table of contents
Many English learners fear grammar. It is difficult. It is hard work. It may be best just to avoid it…
If you think of grammar in this way, then I hope that this article will change your mind.
Let me show you that, yes, grammar is sometimes difficult but it is also very important to learn. I’ll show you ways to learn grammar faster. And I’ll show you what you should avoid. Lastly, I’ll share some great resources that can help you.
Let’s begin by exploring why learners find English difficult.
A few days ago in one of my English classes, a student showed me a sentence which confused her. She wrote it on the board:
“Jake has had his lunch.”
She wanted to know if the sentence was correct. “Has” is the same word as “had”. So why use it twice?
Yes, the sentence is correct. No, it’s not the same word twice. HAS is an auxiliary verb that shows the sentence is in the present perfect tense. HAD means “eaten”.
Another student wrote a similar sentence on the board:
“Jake had had his lunch.”
He wanted to know if this sentence was correct. Why repeat the word “had”?
I took a deep breath and then tried to give a simple explanation of the past perfect tense, one of the most confusing tenses in English. (It describes something that happened before something else in the past.)
You see, my students mainly speak Bahasa Melayu (Malay) and Chinese as their first languages. Both of these languages are quite different from English:
- There are no articles (a/an/the)
- There are no verb tenses
- Plurals are not used in the same way
For these students, English grammar seems strange and confusing.
There are no articles in Chinese. So why do we need them in English?
There are no past tense verbs in Malay. So why do we have them in English?
Speakers of European languages like German, on the other hand, may find that English grammar is quite similar to the grammar in their own language. English grammar may seem familiar and easier to learn.
In fact, German has three ways to say “the” (die, das, der). English only has one!
So the first thing to note is that English grammar is easier if it is similar to the grammar in your own language.
If your language has no verb tenses, for example, you will need to change the way you think about language in order to master English grammar.
This takes us to the next question:
Is it really necessary to have perfect grammar?
The short answer is no.
English, like any language, is a form of communication. You can communicate effectively without having perfect grammar.
I like to watch the news. I often see top politicians from around the world giving speeches in English… with imperfect grammar.
If politicians and business leaders can give speeches without having perfect English, so can you!
When grammar is important
However, there are many reasons that you might wish to improve your grammar, and there are many scenarios where good grammar is important.
In spoken English, people probably won’t spot your grammar mistakes, as they “disappear” into the air.
In written English, however, it is more important to get your grammar correct. People are more likely to notice mistakes when they see them written down.
In addition, some grammar, such as linking words, is important to maintain the cohesion and flow of your writing.
Perhaps you are thinking of taking the IELTS or a similar test.
The IELTS is a great way to show colleges and future employers that you have a good command of English. But to do well in the IELTS, you need to know your grammar.
And finally, don’t think of grammar as a roadblock to speaking good English.
Instead, think of it as a tool that can help you. Just as English is a tool to communicate, grammar is a tool to help us express ourselves better in English.
If I had a time machine, I would travel to ancient Rome!
If I were a superhero, I would call myself Wonderdude!
Learning a language should be fun. Grammar may not be easy, but we can still enjoy learning it. It’s all part of the language learning process.
Do native speakers make grammar mistakes?
Many English learners aim to have ‘perfect English, just like a native speaker’.
However, the truth is that native speakers also make grammar mistakes, especially when writing.
As an English teacher, I notice this when I scroll through Twitter.
I see native speakers writing “there” instead of “their”. And “should of” instead of “should have”.
Note that this tweet sounds correct when spoken aloud. Many native speaker mistakes are like this - they sound correct, but are not correct when written down.
“Their” and “there” sound the same in spoken English. “Should of” sounds almost the same as “should’ve”.
English learners can take away two lessons from this:
1 You don’t need to achieve perfect grammar - even native speakers don’t have perfect grammar.
2 Grammar is more important in writing than speaking - people notice mistakes more when they are written down.
As a final point, although native speakers do make grammar mistakes, overall, they do use grammar consistently.
Everything changes, even grammar
When native speakers often make a grammar mistake, the mistake eventually becomes the correct usage!
This is because English has no controlling body or authority (such as the Académie Française, which governs the use of French).
Technically, nobody sets the rules of English. As crazy as it sounds, whatever everyone says is correct. This is called conventional usage.
Take this example:
If I were a superhero, I would call myself Wonderdude!
Perhaps “were” sounds strange here. We use it to show the unreal past.
Many people simply say it like this, because it sounds better to them:
If I was a superhero, I would call myself Wonderdude!
Over time, more and more people say it the “wrong” way. So now, more people say, “if I was” than “if I were”. Eventually, “the wrong way” becomes the correct way.
As an example, The word egregious means “very bad”. It used to mean “very good”!
And, many years ago, my teacher told me never to begin a sentence with “but” or “and”. But I just did.
The word “okay” is derived from the joke expression “oll korrect” from the 1800s.
The point here is not to take grammar too seriously. We want to improve our grammar as a tool without worrying endlessly whether we made a mistake or not.
What are some ways to learn grammar (and NOT to learn grammar)?
You might think that the best way to learn grammar is to buy a grammar book. Start at chapter one and work your way through to the final chapter.
Many people do exactly this, and find themselves bored and tired of English grammar before they’ve turned the first page.
We should think of grammar as a tool. Therefore, we should think of a grammar book simply as a reference point, like a dictionary.
I recommend the following:
For example, watching TED talks in English is a great way to improve your English. TED talks come with transcripts, so that you can analyse the language in detail.
Go through the script and pick out language structures that you wish to know more about. For example, why did the speaker use “would” instead of “will”?
Just like my students who asked about “has had” and “had had”, always be curious about English grammar. Ask yourself questions in order to learn more.
Here is the point where you can pick up your grammar book. You have a question that needs answered based on a real-world scenario. You may have to search for the answer, but it will be worth the effort.
Because you are searching for an answer to a problem, the information has more meaning than if you simply go through a grammar book and try to learn something.
And after you find the answer to your question, you have one more challenge: to use the new grammar correctly when you speak!
What about grammar classes? Are they helpful?
You might sometimes see English classes that focus on grammar. These are generally useful for people who want technical knowledge of grammar.
These students may be taking the IELTS or may be hoping to become writers one day.
If you do decide to learn grammar in a classroom, you should make sure that it is taught in a useful context.
For example, it is meaningless to spend time changing sentences from active to passive voice.
However, you might learn that passive voice is used in report writing and makes sentences sound more formal. Now, the lesson has more meaning.
Overall, the important thing is that you should learn grammar in context.
Here are some useful resources to help you improve your grammar
Once we understand that we need to learn grammar in context, where it has meaning, we can see that many things can act as a grammar resource.
YouTube videos, podcasts, TV shows, TED talks, books, newspapers and websites can all provide input for us to learn grammar.
I suggest listening to podcasts that talk about grammar. A good example is the ABA podcast. The hosts are energetic and passionate about grammar and English. They will make you energetic and passionate about it, too!
English Learning for Curious Minds (shameless plug) provides podcasts specially for English learners on a range of topics.
Sites like English Learning for Curious Minds or TED, where transcripts are provided, are excellent resources.
If you are looking for a grammar book, many English teachers own a copy of English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy. It is a great resource with clear notes and lots of exercises. There is also a version for advanced learners.
Road to Grammar is my own website, featuring notes and short quizzes on hundreds of grammar topics.
As an independent learner, you need resources that will answer your grammar questions. I recommend Quora for this.
You can also get useful information to help you on Wikipedia. For example, here is Wikipedia’s page on English verb tenses.
If you are in a class, remember that your teacher is a resource, too!
My students ask me grammar questions in almost every single lesson, because I teach them that the best way to learn is to ask lots of questions.
Be like my students and make full use of your teacher’s knowledge.
If you are learning by yourself, challenge yourself with questions and use the resources above to find the answers.
Change the way you think about grammar
Grammar is a fundamental part of learning English. Don’t think you can ignore it!
You shouldn’t get too stressed about whether your grammar is correct or not. Instead, view it as a tool. Or view it as a fun and useful part of learning English.
It's best to embrace it. Stay curious and be an active learner. Ask lots of questions and find ways to seek out the answers.
This is how to make learning grammar great again.