Grammar – it's not that scary really

by Suw on March 28, 2005

There are two sorts of grammar, two ways of learning grammar and two sorts of people when it comes to grammar learning. Which does make it all far simpler than you might believe.
Sorts of grammar
If you've read any linguistics books, such as Words and Rules by Steven Pinker, then you may already be familiar with some of what I'm about to posit.
Despite the variety of grammatical styles you can come across when learning different languages, e.g. whether you use endings or auxiliary verbs to create tenses, there are only two types of grammar that count, which we can think of as explicit and implicit.
Explicit grammar is the sort you learn at school, the set of sometimes arbitrary rules which tell you how you should construct the perfect sentence. This is the sort of grammar that most of us hate. You know: don't split an infinitive; never end a sentence with a preposition; never kick a man in the goolies unless you can do it really, really hard. Oh, wait, that last one's something different.
Implicit grammar is the grammar you learn without thinking about it when learning to talk as a wee bairn. This is the grammar that's really important – it's what allows you to make sense of 'cat chimney up' or 'he tea make' even though those sentences get a definite F grade insofar as your English teacher goes.
The reason that sentences which pass the implicit grammar test but fail the explicit grammar test work is because implicit grammar is all about how your brain processes language. 'Cat chimney up' contains enough information for your brain to make sense of it. The data that is missing – like the words 'the' and 'is', and correct word order – are just the icing on the cake, they just refine or confirm the basic meaning.
Basically, you can break explicit grammar rules and till have a sentence that makes sense, because it doesn't break the implicit grammar rules. Break implicit grammar and you're stuffed. In some languages, implicit and explicit grammars are very similar, but English, for example, is particularly flexible, allowing you to totally murder 'proper' grammar and still be understood.
Two ways to learn grammar
There are two basic ways to learn grammar – through rules and through examples.
Most books use rules to teach grammar. You know: add '-ing' to form the continuous present tense; add '-s/-es' to form a plural; add vodka to melted chocolate to form a chocolate martini. Oops. There I go again.
Anyway, what happens with rule-based grammar teaching is that you memorise the rules, then every time you recognise that a rule needs applying, you remember the rule, apply it, and that helps you create your phrase or sentence. This means you have to both remember the rule and be able to recognise when you need to apply it. Eventually, your brain assimilates the information and you start applying the rule subconsciously, which is the point at which you've really properly learnt that bit of grammar.
Rule-based teaching depends upon explicit grammar.
Example-based learning skips the rule-learning stage and goes straight to assimilation stage. When we were children, we learnt language by the example of those around us. Admittedly our brains were wired for learning and we sucked up all the data without really thinking about it, but even as adults we can still benefit from child-like learning habits. The more examples we see of a given grammatical point, the easier we find it to learn, the more instinctive our understanding. (This is all tied into the way that memory works too, but that's a topic I am going to have to come back to.)
Example-based teaching depends upon implicit grammar.
Most language courses will give you the minimum number of examples that they think they can get away with, primarily I suspect, because it's easier not to have to sit down and think of them. My experiences with Get Fluent, which teaches through providing lots of examples alongside grammatical explanations (so that you know what the examples are illustrating), and the very positive feedback I had from people about this methodology emphasised that this was a good way of helping people get to grips with grammar.
Two types of people
In the years I've been running the Clwb Malu Cachu Welsh discussion group, I've seen two basic types of people when it comes to learning grammar: grammar fiends and grammarphobics.
Grammar fiends love grammar, they love rule-based learning, they love having everything set out in a net and tidy way that they can categorise and memorise. Fiends get on very well with explicit grammar.
Grammarphobics hate grammar, hate memorising rules and find explicit grammar to be scary, unwieldy and a major hurdle to the learning of languages. Grammarphobics prefer example-based learning and depend upon subconsciously learning implicit grammar.
It's very, very important that you know where on the fiend-phobic continuum you are, because that will influence which methodology suits you. Often grammarphobics feel overwhelmed when they try to learn through rule-based systems and grammar fiends feel disappointed with 'fuzzy' example-based systems.
In reality, we're all a bit fiendish and a bit phobic, but understanding how your mind functions will help you to create a set of learning techniques which work best for you.
Note: This post was updated after the discussions in the comments and on IRC helped me refine what I was trying to say. See, I love this blogging lark – I get to tell you what I think, and you get to correct me!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 29, 2005 at 3:28 pm

There's a lot of good advice here; I think your comments will be very useful to language learners.
I think you have misunderstood the prescriptive/descriptive distinction, though. I know the distinction you are making, and it's a good one, and I regret that I don't have apposite words to use for it (perhaps deductive and inductive are close). Unfortunately, prescriptive and descriptive, as presently used in linguistics, aren't the right terms; they refer to a different dichotomy from the one you're discussing.
Fearing that you'll hate your fanboy for quibbling …
—ACW

Anonymous March 29, 2005 at 3:54 pm

Hmm, I will admit I don't have my books to hand to check, so am going on my memory only. But if prescriptive/descriptive don't work for you in the context I'm using them in, what dichotomy do they refer to?

Anonymous March 29, 2005 at 11:21 pm

Prescriptive grammar has (or claims to have) normative force. It tells people how they should speak and write. Traditional language instruction (both first and second language) uses the prescriptive strategy. Prescriptive grammar is the domain of most school language teachers and most newspaper “language maven” columns.
Descriptive grammar is what most linguists do. It concerns itself with describing what language users actually do. No native English speaker would ever produce the sentence Cat chimney up, and only an extremely inadequate descriptive account of English would fail to note this.
A prescriptive grammar of English would say, “The sentence It 's me is ungrammatical; you must say It is I.”
A descriptive grammar of English (and Geoff Pullum and Rodney Huddlestone have just produced a gem) will note that in fact almost nobody says It is I, while almost everyone will produce and accept It's me without blinking.
Both prescriptive and descriptive grammars would reject Cat chimney up, the former because it is wrong, and the latter because no native English speaker would ever produce such a sentence.
Both traditions use both rules and examples. In the prescriptive tradition, rules are meant to be real rules that you are supposed to follow, like rules of etiquette and traffic laws. In descriptive grammar, rules are hypotheses that try to capture regularities in people's actual usage. Linguists usually believe that we have rules in our heads (see Pinker on regular verbs, for example), but that we are mostly unconscious of them.
If you will forgive an extended example, English has three regular plural suffixes, all spelled -s or -es, but pronounced differently: the plural of cat is cats, the plural of dog is (pronounced) dogz, and the plural of finch is pronounced finchiz. We use these three distinct plural endings, -s, -z, and -iz, almost flawlessly and with near-perfect agreement between speakers. Nobody ever says doggiz, and nobody pluralizes play as place (using an s sound instead of a z). And yet not one speaker in a hundred can articulate the rule that allows them to choose the correct suffix. A descriptive account notes the regularity, takes a lot of data (examples), and often proposes a rule to explain the observed behavior. But if later data contradicts the rule, the rule will be modified or discarded.
None of this is intended to belittle the value of the distinction you made in your original post. Those two approaches to language-learning, one based on lots and lots of examples and immersion, and the other based on rules and careful analysis, both definitely exist, and people do, absolutely, need to think about which approach (or mixture of approaches) matches their own cognitive styles. It's just that the two approaches can't be called prescriptive and descriptive, because language scholars have already appropriated those two words and made them mean something else.
I still haven't come up with better words than inductive (for the example-based approach) and deductive or maybe analytic (for the rules-and-thinking approach). We definitely all learn our native languages inductively, while most second-language programs are pretty heavily analytic. One big reason for that is that little kids have a magical-seeming ability to suck up language by example, but that ability seems to fade during adolescence, so that the inductive approach becomes more frustrating.
OK, this is my favorite topic so I'm blithering on and on. Sorry. Hope I wasn't too incoherent, and thanks for your patience.

Anonymous March 29, 2005 at 11:22 pm

Oh, nuts. I forgot to sign that. It was me :)
–ACW

Anonymous April 30, 2005 at 5:59 pm

Finally got the time to fix this post! Thanks for your input!

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