One of my earliest memories of being aware of the concept of grammar is an ill-fated English lesson in secondary school, where my teacher opened the class by saying “Now I’m sorry, but we have to cover some grammar today.” Having had the subject introduced like that, it felt perfectly natural to oblige him with a loud groan of disappointment, inspiring a few cheap chuckles from around the class. He quickly countered, though, “Fine, Phil, if it’s so boring then how about you tell the class what a preposition is.”
No one had ever taught me what a preposition was, so of course I looked like a fool for mocking the noble virtues of a grammar class. To this day I feel I was unjustly chastised; sure, I didn’t know what a preposition was, but to be honest I wasn’t too sure what grammar was either. I had groaned because the way he’d brought it up made it sound like it warranted a groan. And that’s a fundamental problem in the way we understand grammar. It’s presented as a dull set of tools, so we grow up believing it’s boring.
I’ve written creatively my whole life, but I didn’t come to appreciate how interesting grammar was until I both started to learn another language and started to teach English. I saw it was useful when I discovered that my grammar mistakes changed the meaning of my sentences.
Being fluent in English it seldom matters to us why we have rules. We use grammar without thinking about it. And when we come to learn about it, it’s often just because we’re told the rules are important, not because we need to understand how to apply them. Grammar is made boring because we’re often told how to speak according to the rules, not how proper grammar can help you communicate.
What makes grammar interesting?
One of my students recently gave me the sentence “There is a cat on the road.” To which I responded that he should say “There is a cat in the road”, because that’s the associated preposition for activities in the road, while on generally applies to objects that interact with the road surface. Leading to my final conclusion that actually, to say the cat’s on the road could lead to a question of if the cat’s dead. Why’s it sound like roadkill? Because if we’re talking about animals and the surface of roads, it’s a collocation that produces a rather specific image.
It labours the point, granted, but it kept his interest and he got the idea, and is unlikely to mix up in and on in this situation again.
Jump back to the way I was taught such things at school…if he’d made such a mistake and my response had been “Sorry but that’s a point of grammar, this could be boring,” then shown him a diagram of a pen in a box and then on a box, he’d probably have filed the information away as dull.
Grammar is boring when we look at it as a set of rules. But when the rules can change our meaning, it can make the difference between life and death. The problem is that you need to know that the rules apply to you before you can appreciate that the rules matter. When anyone presents grammar as a boring thing we must learn, because these are the rules, it puts up blinkers to stop people realising these are rules that change the way people interact. Grammar shouldn’t ever be about rules for the sake of learning, or for the sake of accuracy – it’s all about communicating effectively, and avoiding heinous misunderstandings. Both of which can be very exciting indeed.