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Why do we need grammar?

It’s not often that the word ‘inspiring’ is used to describe a day of grammar talks, but I was not the only one to think so at last week’s English Grammar Day at the British Library. With a queue out the door and tickets sold out, it’s clear that grammar’s back. After years of conspicuous absence on the National Curriculum, 2014 is the year when grammar will reaffirm itself on the syllabus. This is a cause for celebration. But why?

The early days of grammar

Until very recently, education without grammar was unthinkable and, as I discovered in the first seminar of the day, the learning of grammar has an incredibly long and global history. Verb tables inscribed in cuneiform tablets have been discovered that were used in Babylon in 2000BC. Many other civilizations of the ancient world were intellectually curious about how their language worked and started to develop words to describe how language was used.

Fast forward to the 16th century and grammar was such an essential part of education that new schools in England were called grammar schools. King Henry VIII himself even commissioned a grammar book for school children (spelling it grammer in the royal proclamation, which seems embarrassing until you remember that either spelling was acceptable at the time). The vast majority of the great writers up to the 20th century would have been taught grammar; Shakespeare learnt it from the age of seven and his language skills weren’t too shabby.

From grammar schools to grammar fools

So what happened? How did grammar fall out of standard education? Between 1920 and 1960 grammar research dried up in the UK and 1960 saw the end of the optional grammar question in O-level English. From there, many teachers argue that it simply died out from statutory education.

As someone at school in the 1990s who was never formally taught my adjectives from my adverbs, I felt this lacking in my education when I arrived at university and attempted a module in the English Language. I was not equipped to analyse my own language and I was ashamed at how the non-native speakers of English were far better able to spot the subjunctive! Grammar as part of my education would have given me the terminology to name each part of speech in a writer’s most memorable lines, which would have been rather useful when trying to analyse the effect of the language used.

Grammar’s back

Anyway, I am delighted that grammar is making a comeback in our schools. A knowledge of grammar has a proven impact on writing, reading, mastering your own language, learning foreign languages, and also general thinking. Professor David Crystal, who wrapped up the day’s proceedings to tumultuous applause, explained that “sentences exist to make sense of words; grammar makes sense of sentences”.

So grammar is bound up with the meaning and effect of what we write and say; it gives us the words to talk about the choices we make when we communicate. Of course, you can get by without learning grammar, but to borrow an analogy from Professor Crystal, it’s like driving without knowing the names for the parts of your car.

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