What’s the Big Deal about Grammar?

To many people, grammar is an annoying school subject. In some “progressive” schools, grammar lessons are ignored or minimized in order not to stifle a student’s creativity. Yet others are annoyed by grammatical mistakes and even judge a person’s intelligence by his or her grammar. What is the big deal about grammar?

First of all, without grammar there is no verbal communication. The communication in any language (English or otherwise) is made up of two parts: words and grammar. Of course we understand that words are a necessary part of communication. But grammar seems a little fussy. It seems that way because for the most part people take grammar for granted.

To express a thought, we use words, vocabulary. But then we have to arrange and form those words in certain ways so that our listener or reader can understand what we are trying to say using those words. Grammar is how we arrange and form those words.

Here is a very simple illustration. We have three words: John, Mary, and loves. If we know which John and Mary we are talking about, we know what those words mean. However, if we want to say something about their love relationship, we have to use grammar. In English, we sometimes alter the form of words, but we mostly rely on word order. (Languages that rely on word order are called synthetic languages. That does not mean they are artificial, it means they are put together.) If I say, “John loves Mary,” that could be quite different from saying “Mary loves John.” The words are identical. The vocabulary is the same. It is the grammar that is different, and the grammar gives the sentence meaning. Without grammar, we would all be like infants just learning words. We could say the words, but we would have no way of communicating our ideas, how the words relate to one another.

So, yes without grammar there is no communication.

P.S. Languages that are not synthetic are usually inflected. That means that the relationship between or among words is shown by changes in the form of the words themselves. Now in English we have a few inflections–we add -s to plurals and to third person singular verbs, we add -ed or otherwise change the form of past tenses, we make a distinction between he and him or she and her. However, some languages use inflections to show all or nearly all the relationships between words.

Latin was an inflected language. For example, in Latin we would say “Iohannes amat Mariam,” for “John loves Mary”; however, if we were to reverse the order of the words to “Mariam amat Iohannes,” we would still be saying “John loves Mary.” The relationship is not based on the word order, but on the form of the words. The -es at the end of Iohannes tells us that John (or Iohannes) is the subject of the sentence; the -am at the end of Maria tells us Mary is the direct object. That does not change regardless of the order we put them in. It would not be uncommon in Latin, in fact, to say “Amat Iohannes Mariam.” If we want to say “Mary loves John,” what we change is the form of the words, not the order. We would say, “Iohannem amat Maria” to say “Mary loves John.” We could put it in any order: “Maria amat Iohannem,” “Amat Maria Iohannem,” etc. Anyway, that is a simple illustration of a non-synthetic or inflected language.

Different languages have different degrees of inflection and synthesis. English is primarily synthetic with a few inflections as mentioned above. French and Spanish are also synthetic, but they have more inflections–for example, you have to know masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, and you have to know six forms for every tense of every verb. Latin is highly inflected, but order does matter some, especially with prepositions. Now Hungarian is inflected even more than Latin. Hungarian has no prepositions, so every noun has over twenty different forms. (I think the exact number is twenty-seven.)

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