a stack of old books


What is grammar?

Put simply, grammar is the order and structure a language follows that gives the language meaning. Grammar is sort of like the skeleton of a language. We could have all the useful words and phrases you can imagine, but without a structure to give them a logical order and flow that we can consistently understand, they would have no real meaning. For example, consider a short sentence:

I have to go home in an hour.

We understand exactly what this sentence means, because all the words are in a grammatical order that we can understand and derive a specific meaning from. But look what happens if we put all the same words together without any grammatical structure:

an to have I in go hour home.

Maybe in writing it’s not too difficult to piece this one together, but imagine if someone spoke this way. We know what each word means, but we would have no idea what he was talking about if he threw all of the same words together in this random order.

Let’s look at another short example from the Modern Library translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Straight, not straightened.

-Meditations, 7.12

This phrase is only three words, and two of those words even come from the same root word. However, if we change the order of the words, the meaning of the phrase is completely reversed. “Straightened, not straight,” means the exact opposite of what the original phrase was supposed to say, and we understand those two opposite meanings because of grammar. We know that the adjective straight and the participle straightened carry different meanings and connotations, and by preceding one of the two with the adverb not, we understand that one is spoken of in a positive light while the other is to be avoided.

Now let’s look at another example of changing word order. These lines from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are written a little differently than the way we would naturally say it ourselves, but we still easily understand the meaning.

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

-Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ll. 141-142

We would probably say something more like, “The Albatross was hung about my neck,” but we still interpret the same meaning from the words either way. Even though the words are a little out of the usual order, they still follow logical grammatical structure that we derive the same meaning from. Albatross accompanied by the definite article the makes it the clear subject in our mind. We know that was hung is the past passive form of hang and therefore conclude that the action happened in the past. We also understand that the prepositional phrase “about my neck” is describing where the albatross was hung. The order that all the words fall into and the specific inflections used give the entire sentence one specific meaning that could be changed or completely lost if the words were reordered or inflected differently.

Why study grammar?

As I’ve already hinted at a little, grammar can be a useful and powerful tool, if you look at it from the right perspective. Let’s look at a few of the benefits that come with studying grammar.

Grammar is good for your brain.

Learning new things stimulates your mind to help improve neuroplasticity and help you maintain a healthy brain as you age. That’s why Harvard Health mentions mental stimulation as a good way to keep your brain young. Cleveland Clinic also lists mental fitness as one of the 6 Pillars of Brain Health. Challenging your brain with some advanced grammar will sharpen your mind and help keep your brain healthy. In addition, studying grammar also improves your analytical thinking skills. In a grammar workbook you are analyzing sentences, looking for patterns, dissecting phrases into their smaller parts, and determining the function of each word to fully understand everything that goes into giving a sentence its unique meaning. Regardless of whether you like grammar, I think we can all agree that analytical thinking skills are valuable in plenty of other areas of life far beyond English class.

Understanding grammar improves your communication skills.

Speaking and writing with proper grammar makes you sound more educated and professional. Whether you’re emailing clients, writing a blog post, crafting a proposal, filling out an important application, or turning in a big research paper, you’ll be much more understandable and appealing to your intended audience if you use proper grammar.

Besides making yourself more understandable, knowing your grammar might also help you better understand what others have written as well. Reading poetry like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” we just looked at, for example, is much easier if you are well-acquainted with the grammatical structures and rules that make up the language. The better you understand grammar and the more you practice reading grammatically complex sentences, the easier it becomes to understand and analyze literature in general, whether it’s a poem, a novel, or a job contract.

Understanding grammar helps you learn other languages.

How does understanding your own language help you understand another language? Well, languages have a lot of parts and structures in common. If you can understand and manipulate the different grammatical pieces and structures of your own language, understanding and manipulating the ones in another language will be much easier.

It would be pretty difficult to understand the different ways verbs function in languages like Spanish and Korean if you don’t even know what a verb does in English yet. As an ESL teacher, I can tell you it’s much easier to explain a grammatical principle in English to students who already understand the grammar of their own language than it is to explain a concept to students who haven’t studied much grammar at all yet.

With the world becoming more and more connected, businesses becoming more globalized, and people looking to travel more, many people, at some point, want to study at least one foreign language. Better understanding your own language first will make learning a new language easier and less intimidating.