Why study grammar?

Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English … is demanding, challenging and takes time.

Terry Leahy

There’s been a lot of fuss over the past week about whether it’s appropriate to assess children’s knowledge of grammar at the end of Key Stage 2. Various commentators even seem to take a perverse pride in their lack of knowledge boasting that ignorance hasn’t held them back. But amidst all the confusion and vitriol, some people have been asking why, if grammatical knowledge is so important, most people seem to manage without it. This is a reasonable question, and one worth answering.

First we need to know what grammar actually is. Crucially, it is not a list of rules. Formal grammar is an attempt to describe what real people actually do with language. We seem to born with an innate ability to learn the grammar of our own language – we pick up, without being instructed, such intricacies as word order. English is a subject-verb-object language. That’s just how it works.  The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat (object). Other languages work differently. And it doesn’t matter. We all seem to manage to put it together by about the age of three. You still hear children making subject-verb agreement slips long after this (I runned.) but these occur precisely because the ability the learn grammar is a biologically primary adaptation. We know the past participle of a verb usually takes the -ed ending; irregular verbs just have to be learned the hard way. So, if the capacity to learn grammar is – at least to some degree – innate, what need is there for formal instruction?

The answer, in a nutshell, is writing. It might seem to the casual observer that the way we speak and the way we write is the same, but it isn’t. Speech is natural. We’ve been doing it for millennia and appear to evolved the capacity to just pick it up from our environment. Writing is highly artificial and is a pretty recent invention. If you go back far enough, writing looked like this:


There are no words, no punctuation, no paragraphs: just characters. Oh, and the were no pages, so you had to unroll your papyrus and, if you wanted to read what it said, you had to start at the beginning and work your way, painstakingly, right to the end. On a naive level, this makes a certain kind of sense. But, in order to make the task of reading less laborious, we’ve systematically improved it over the centuries until now we have commas, page numbers, indexes and hyperlinks.

None of this is acquired naturally. Nobody, no matter how smart, just picks up spelling and punctuation without being instructed. In spoken language it’s obvious from the context where pauses are and where emphasis is placed. In written language it really isn’t. Grammar, at heart, is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

Because writing is so much harder to understand than speech, we all need a certain amount of teaching in order to be able to do it. But does that mean we need to be taught what a fronted adverbial or a coordinating conjunction is? Maybe, maybe not. Clearly, once you’ve been taught the basics, you can read and write. With practice you acquire a feel for where a comma or full stop should go. So, why the need the learn the meta-language of grammar?

Here’s where I part company from the designers of the Key Stage 2 curriculum. There’s very little need (although, of course, it’s still worth knowing) to be able to identify the subjunctive mood or to be able to differentiate between a subordinating conjunction or a preposition, but we all – and especially teachers – benefit from knowing some stuff. The bare minimum I think every student – and, by implication, every teacher –  should know is as follows:

Understanding how words work

  • Parts of speech (verbs, nouns, articles, adjectives, prepositions)
  • Subject verb agreement
  • Tense

Understanding how to write a clear sentence:

  • The elements of clauses and sentences
  • Types of sentence (simple, compound & complex)
  • Commas (listing and bracketing)

Understanding how to create a coherent text:

  • Topic sentences
  • Paragraphs
  • Introductions & conclusions

If it was down to me, no one would be allowed to teach unless they understood these basics. Thank goodness it’s not up to me, I hear you cry.

I realise I still haven’t addressed why we need to know this stuff. There are three main reasons:

  1. To be creative you have to know the rules – explicit knowledge of grammar matters. I’ve written about this here and here.
  2. To think analytically you need to ‘think like an essay’ – grammar is concerned with meaning. Daisy Christodoulou has covered this excellently here.
  3. Teaching becomes much more efficient if everyone knows the basics. Instead of having to faff about trying to teach Year 11 to use semi colons by saying you can sort of use them like the word ‘because’ to join two linked sentences together, you can simply say, a semi colon is used to connect two independent clauses.

I hope that helps.

39 Responses to Why study grammar?

  1. Typo alert: ‘subjunctive’ not ‘subjective’.

  2. fish64 says:

    When you say “tense”, what would you mean by that? As an MFL teacher, I welcome the fact that children will now be taught detailed tense classification in English, rather than the oversimplified past/present/future. I have blogged about this here


    • I have worked all year with my 11 year old supporting him on this stuff and in the exam he was unable to identify a present progressive. I’m not surprised. We used to call it one of the past tenses because the thing being described happened. In French, there is a ‘passé composé’ similarly made up of an auxiliary and a past participle. The French, as you can see, call it a ‘past’ tense. The old term ‘continuous’ at least suggested that things were continuing as opposed to ‘progressive’ which sounds like a political party.

  3. Aside from the grammar itself, there is the issue of why this particular grammar at this particular moment. It’s because the Bew Report of 2011 said that this was a means to find schools accountable. In turn, that was because, the report said, Spelling, punctuation and grammar questions have ‘right and wrong’ answers. Clearly, as exemplified by Nick Gibb, that is an untruth. That’s to say, when Gibb made an ‘error’ on the World at One, in actual fact, he merely stated an alternative view of a bit of naming of parts. The question was at fault, not Gibb.

    So, why would Bew have said this? Because in the minds of these people there is a prescribed set of rules and that these would serve very well the function of measuring teachers by measuring children. However, the ‘what’ of what’s being taught is itself faulty, ambiguous and unfitted for being squeezed into this right/wrong model. In fact, given that it’s part of what is by all accounts a norm-referenced test, it’s being squeezed into a model which has to deliver sufficient numbers of ‘wrong’ answers.

    The grammar itself has a core problem: it is not sufficiently linked to meaning and social function. A lot of the terminology (e.g. present perfect, present progressive’) have little link to meaning or purpose. A terms like ‘fronted adverbial’ is next to useless. There is no recognition that the work of sociolinguists or of M.A.K.Halliday has ever happened.

    Then again, there is a knock-on effect that this stuff is supposed to be shoehorned into the children’s writing. So, under the expectations matrix, children are supposed to write using fronted adverbials, embedded relative clauses and expanded noun phrases. Surprise, surprise this is leading to dead, formulaic writing.

    On the creativity front, there is really a problem here. I work sometimes with nursery, reception, Year 1 and year 2 children (as well as KS2-ers). There really is no problem for these younger children to ‘create’ ie to invent uses of language, purposes for language in, say, poetry, written collectively or individually, part scribed or not. And this is all way before knowing names for the structures they are using. That’s because where you have described ‘writing’, in fact there are many forms of writing – some more formal than others. Just think of the difference between say, formal non-fiction prose you find in books, with, say, journalism in popular newspapers, or again in contrast to ads copy, notices, texting, emails, drama, poetry, holiday brochures, catalogue, museum guides, and the huge variety within fiction and so on.

    There really is no point in fibbing to children by telling them ‘this is what writing is’ and only referring to one kind of writing. SATs ‘grammar’ collapses these varieties into one, in the onward rush to provide suitable fodder for right/wrong answers.

  4. Really useful – lack of knowledge of grammar limits how we write and how we read.

  5. mmiweb says:

    The danger for me is that we school as the process by which we pass the examinations that the school (and/or the children) are measured by. This then becomes both a reductive purpose and also we fall foul of the McNamara fallacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McNamara_fallacy).

    So, your statement that, “Formal grammar is an attempt to describe what real people actually do with language” is not one I would disagree with but the idea that you can reduce this to a single set of maxims that can be taught as “the truth” or “the correct system” to children is fallacious and the desire to do this is driven not by a want to teach children to write well, or to be creative, or to enjoy and be excited by writing, but to meet a prescribed set of testable criteria – which brings us back to McNamara.

    There will also be those who want to explore and examine the codification of language – but I would leave this to these people who want to explore the complexity of this this would be much later in the educative process.

    I would like to see children exploring writing (both stuff they find themselves and stuff introduced by their teachers) in all its genres, postcards, love notes, poetry, nonsense verse, newspapers, blogs, wikis, twitter, play scripts, reports, essays, academic articles, hansard, film scripts etc… and deciding how language has been used in its different forms – and following different rules and why this seems to work or not work in different contexts. As to use this to write and write and write their own work – and then critique and challenge themselves and others to make this writing more appropriate, persuasive, accurate, exciting etc…

    • How are the children supposed to talk about different genres and forms of writing, and how language is used in various types? Do they not need some explanation of the grammar and punctuation used and some knowledge of the language to explain that use? How can you explain use of adverbs or nouns, or nouns used as verbs if you do not know what any of these things are or what they are called? I realise you could talk about ‘this is how you use words in an advert’ or ‘adverts use persuasive words’ but these terms are not at all clear and don’t explain why these words are used.

      • mmiweb says:

        James, I would not want to start the conversation about writing by talking about the grammatical form or the use of punctuation I would argue that this is too instrumental an approach. I would start talking about impact, effect, engagement, language, vocab and then would work with children looking at form. I am not convinced, nor is it my experience, and neither are fairly large groups of the research community that being able to deconstruct and label is effective in improving writing – esp. in the primary school. Do not know what sector you work in?

      • Do you need the following terms: determiner, fronted adverbial, subjunctive, subordinate conjunction, present perfect?

    • David Didau says:

      I can’t see how the McNamara fallacy is relevant to what I’ve written. And I’m not interested in teaching “the correct system” without the opportunity to dialectically engage in what makes truth. The point is that there is useful, powerful knowledge here and not to teach it because ultimate truth is unknowable is just fatuous.

      The posh boys at Eton aren’t having their time wasted writing wikis and I fail to see why my children should have to put up with any less. Formal instruction in writing for spurious purposes is, I think, a shameful waste of time.

      • But writing for an audience or even writing for a purpose has taken a back seat behind writing ‘correctly’ ie including semi-colons, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and embedded relative clauses.

  6. I get quite cross with Michael Rosen because he always argues that because something is not always so, or there is no real right and wrong, it follows that there is no point in teaching any of it. Also he equates creativity with spontaneity. Children of nursery age are not writing poetry even though it might look as if they are. Poetry is a discrete art with rules and forms – sometimes I think Michael Rosen believes it is just sentences broken into separate lines, it isn’t.

    • Thanks for that advice.

    • re your first sentence: if you can find somewhere where I’ve said that primary age children should have no opportunity to learn any grammar, please find it for me. That’s not what I’ve said. I’ve criticised this particular form of grammar – it’s not the only one, I’ve criticised the domination of this particular ‘knowledge about language’ but I haven’t expressed the view that you say makes you cross.

      No, I haven’t equated creativity with spontaneity. I’ve equated with ‘inventing’ things. Yes, children can create poetry at nursery age. I’ve done it with them, through e.g. the question-response format which is at the heart of hundreds of years of traditional or ‘folk’ creation. One person (me in this case) has a chorus, the children make up/think up lines. It’s a classic oral poetry form. I’ve used it in relation to the last page of ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ when children have asked me, ‘What is the bear thinking?” I say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?”‘ Then we make up a call-response chant/poem/song accordingly. This will draw on the children’s intratextual knowledge of the book, intertextual awareness and their general experience. I generally find that once we get going with that, they do indeed ‘make up’ stuff to fit the call-response form. Then having done it once, they can do it again with other material, making up their own ‘chorus’ so that the whole form is theirs.

      re your last sentence: it’s generally a good idea to check with people what they really think, rather than state it for them, and then tell them they’re wrong. It’s not as though I haven’t written what I think about this in open, free access places. So, let’s try this: can you tell me the ‘rules’ that are in place in any of the following: the 1611 Bible translations of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon; the 1811 poem sequence by Heinrich Heine translated as ‘The North Sea’; Baudelaire’s prose poems; Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’; W.E. Henley’s so-called ‘hospital poems’; much of the free verse poetry by Ezra Pound, T.E.Hulme, H.D., Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese Poetry, Tagore’s prose poem sequences, Carl Sandburg, Kenneth Patchen, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Fearing, W.H.Auden. (You’ll find examples of all these online.) Auden said that he worked to the principle that poetry was ‘memorable speech’. If that’s the case, what ‘rules’ does this phrase encapsulate? I think there may be some rhetorical conventions or patterns. Carlos Williams has written about these in the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry. I think there may well be some principles but I can’t think of any ‘rules’.

  7. Requiem for Childhood
    by James Glasse © 2014

    Tutored from the age of two
    I’ve only just learned how to poo.
    “Compete or die,” our parents say
    “Can’t we please go out to play?”

    The United Nations declaration
    Should protect the children of our nation
    Or do we now eschew
    The childhood we all once knew?

    Crush their spirits, break their souls
    Creativity doesn’t befit their roles.
    Tutoring, testing, night and day
    “Can’t we please go out to play?”

    Hothouses make our plants grow fast
    But ask yourselves, do they last?
    Thomas Gradgrind would be proud
    No more childhood, it’s not allowed

    Tickboxes are our mantra now
    Grades the Holy Grail, the Sacred Cow.
    “Remember the race,” our leaders say
    “Can’t we please go out to play?”

    Hard Times to be sure
    But on childhood to wage war?
    What the Dickens are we doing
    When childhood itself we are eschewing?

    Systemised neurosis for us all
    Organised activities, wall to wall.
    Mandarin? Violin? What’s today?
    “Can’t we please go out to play?”

    • David Didau says:

      Yeah. Go out and play. At lunch time. In the evenings. At the weekend. During the 13 weeks of school holiday. Now shut up and buckle down to some hard work. Waging war on childhood? Pfft.

      • Absolutely. Over the course of a year, primary school children spend between 15 and 20% of their time in “formal” lessons – most of which are not particularly formal. Yet for some people, even that is too much…

      • It depends how you define play. I have sitting in front of me a 110 unit course to examine language through investigating it and experimenting with it: the 1970 School Council ‘Language in Use’ course. In some respects it’s play: instruction through play.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      If only they’d go out to play. Sit and stare at an X-box is more like it. I think my son was one of the last free-range kids, and he’s 32 now.

  8. Carol says:

    I agree with your basic list. Much more is for those needing the knowledge for linguistics or teaching careers.

  9. […] Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English … is demanding, challenging and takes time. Terry Leahy There’s been a lot of fuss over the past week about whether it’s appropriate to assess children’s knowledge of grammar at the end of Key Stage 2. Various commentators even seem to take a perverse pride in their lack  […]

  10. Dr. Buckles says:

    While I think grammar is important to understanding how language works, I think the KS2 tests focus on some areas that are a pointless waste of time. The teaching time devoted to explaining the present perfect and subjunctive could be better spent doing more interesting things with language, along the lines of what Michael Rosen has proposed.

    The other problem is that, by your own definition of a “bare minimum” of grammar that “every student – and, by implication, every teacher – should know”, you wouldn’t be allowed to teach (you did say “no one would be allowed to teach unless they understood these basics”…). Your example of “the cat sat on the mat” is not a subject verb object structure, but a subject verb adverbial one. The mat is where it is sitting, not something receiving the action of the verb “to sit”. In a sentence like “The cat sat its furry arse down on the mat, you could call it SVO (+adverbial). Equally, “I runned” is not a “subject verb slip” but an example of an irregular verb being given a regular past tense suffix (overgeneralisation, as some child language experts might call it). If an experienced teacher with an interest in grammar such as yourself, falls foul of two of your own basics, what hope has a KS2 student got?

    A final problem is shown by exactly the kind of pedantic nit-picking I’ve just carried out on your post. Grammar, in my opinion, shouldn’t be about right/wrong answers and endless – often changing terminology – but exploring how language works and why it does certain things, creating some effects in one text and different effects in another. Some of it might involve arguing the toss over whether certain structures follow certain rules, or which elements of grammatical analysis are most useful to apply to particular texts, and that’s all good stuff to discuss. But at KS2? No way. Yes, we need some basics at KS2 and we need to think about and research the links between explicit grammar teaching, reading and writing as well as how integrated grammar teaching might offer different ways to teach grammar, but this set of grammatical hurdles and the teaching that it has inevitably led to in many schools is not the answer.

    • A good starting point for what Dr Buckles is saying is the KS2 SPaG test itself. My favourite this year is the question that asks for an ‘antonym’ for a word that a) really doesn’t have an opposite (if it can indeed by said that any word has) and b) is a word that has taken on in recent years a new meaning care of the pop world, so it would be quite legitimate to reference it that way.

      In fact, synonym and antonym are not grammar categories at all! Why are they in the test? 1) because they are a good question to guarantee sufficient numbers of ‘fails’ to keep the exam designers happy (bell curves et al) and 2) they are excellent for testing parental background and cultural capital thereof. 3) they are there because the Victorians had them in their ‘English’ text books. 4) Michael Gove likes Victorians.

      Another question asked the pupils to identify a present perfect, a tense whose name is extremely hard for 11 year olds to understand or unpack or remember because in their terms it is neither ‘perfect’ or ‘present’. It would be better to call it the ‘have done verb’.

  11. Steve Ryan says:

    I normally find myself in agreement with most of David’s ideas/arguments, but I’m absolutely with Michael Rosen and Dr Buckles here. ‘Grammar’ is merely (yes, I chose that adverb deliberately) a systematized description of how people use language in particular ways to create particular meanings and effects, and thus a detailed knowledge of the component parts is useful to those who wish to identify and codify such usages. David’s argument should, in theory, mean that those with the most in-depth knowledge of grammar – ie writers of textbooks on language and linguistics – would be the most effective writers around, though a dip into almost any undergraduate textbook in that realm of academia should be enough to convince that this is simply not the case. An in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of grammar is useful, but nothing in my experience shows that it necessarily leads to better writing/writers, and I’m unaware of any evidence that demonstrates the contrary. As somebody with a background in linguistics as well as having been a teacher of both English and Creative Writing to undergraduate and postgraduate level – I’ve found little if any correlation between a knowledge of the mechanics of language and the production of effective writing. An analogy with music might be helpful here: would anybody seriously suggest that musicians as accomplished as Django Reinhardt, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, Buddy Rich, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and the virtuoso who is Tommy Emmanuel (if you don’t know who he is, check YouTube) were hindered by not being able to decipher a musical score? Please…

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Steve – you might have missed this from the second paragraph of my post:

      “First we need to know what grammar actually is. Crucially, it is not a list of rules. Formal grammar is an attempt to describe what real people actually do with language.”

      You appear to have misunderstood my argument which is not that “those with the most in-depth knowledge of grammar – ie writers of textbooks on language and linguistics – would be the most effective writers around” but rather that knowledge of grammar permits thought and experimentation which is difficult, if not impossible without. Clearly knowledge of grammar does not infer talent in creative writing any more than an understanding of perspective makes one an artist or knowledge of the rule of tennis makes one a profession tennis player.

      And, yes, I would seriously suggest that any musician unable to decipher a musical score is hampered by this inability. I doubt Mozart or Beethoven have been able to produce their music without being able to read and write music.

  12. Steve Ryan says:

    Hi David – no, I saw the comment in your second paragraph. The problem is that although you state this at the beginning, you later give a justification for the teaching of grammar that seems to contradict it: ‘To be creative you have to know the rules – explicit knowledge of grammar matters.’ Not a list of rules or a list of rules? You really can’t have it both ways. And the problem is that many KS2 teachers with a less sophisticated understanding than your own will approach the subject of grammar as if it is merely a list of rules. Also, as Michael Rosen points out, which grammar are we talking about here? There is enormous variation in the grammatical usage of English speakers and writers associated with factors such as ethnicity, age, region, social class, gender, etc, but I don’t think the current government is likely to insist upon the teaching of the grammatical structures of, for instance, Caribbean English or the dialects of working-class Glaswegians.
    The idea that ‘knowledge of grammar permits thought and experimentation which is difficult, if not impossible without’ seems to me to be deeply problematic, not to mention ethnocentric: it implies that cultures that do not or did not codify their language use in the way that you advocate are/were incapable of thought and experimentation or were at least severely limited by their lack of knowledge of the mechanics of grammar. Are you really saying that? If so, how would you explain innovation and development in the arts, sciences, philosophy, technology, etc that occurs/occurred without a formal mass teaching of grammar – something that even in the UK goes back only to the second half of the 19th century?
    My own view is that the attempt to force-feed young minds with lists of forbidding-sounding terminology is not going to result in more thoughtful and experimental writers but is likely to have an opposite and inhibiting effect: to stop them thinking and experimenting for fear of breaking the ‘rules’ they imbibe from their teachers. This would doubtless make Ofsted inspectors and governments of different hues happy, as they would then be able to measure everything (particularly the performance of the hapless teachers) without having to consider the ‘value’ of education at all.
    I’ll leave you with the thoughts of a great stylist, Dorothy Parker, who has some sound advice on the subject:
    “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style’. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

  13. By the way, one government justification for the SPaG/GPS grammar is that it is ‘core knowledge’. This was expressed in a letter to a woman who had written to the DfE to complain about the tests. Interesting on several counts, I think. 1) This wasn’t the justification for its inclusion in the first place – namely that it is a means to an end: measuring teachers via the right/wrong answers on a test (Bew Report 2011) 2) who decided that this particular set of ‘facts’ (as exemplified by the government’s own glossary at gov.uk) is ‘core’? Where is the committee which said that this is a ‘sine qua non’ of ‘knowledge’, the ‘whole man’ [sic] or even Toby Young’s call for the all round liberal education? Are ‘fronted adverbials’, ‘determiners’, and ’embedded relative clauses’ really core? No, I should re-phrase that. Is the ability to spot and name these terms, really core? My long hours of revision exercises with my dear little chap give me no assurance that most 11 year olds understand how these categories work, how any grammatical category has ‘edges’, outer limits which partly or hardly conform to the ideal – something that all linguists I meet are happy to admit.

  14. matt says:

    A good friend who is a HT of a federation of schools refers to the current SPaG as a dumbing down of the curriculum. By this he means that schools are teaching the skills and knowledge of grammar as a tick list to be used when writing to secure maximum points. This in turn has led to less creativity. Maybe once the rules are secure then the creativity will return, but I doubt that will happen. I recently heard that Stephen King when editing his work will make sure that he has removed every adverb as he considers them lazy yet our children are encouraged to use them constantly.
    The following link shows a graph of entrepreneurial capability when compared with PISA maths scores. There appears to be a link (causal or connected?) between the two. I do wonder if this test driven, supposedly high standards approach to the curriculum may lead us to much greater “results” but at the same time stifle creativity and invention. My feeling is that it will but by then of course it will be late for a generation of children.


  15. […] the flip side of the debate are Daisy Christodoulou and David Didau who view the teaching of grammar and linguistic terminology at primary level as a gateway to […]

  16. Lucky Pierre says:

    I don’t think knowing the meta-language associated with grammar should get in the way of teaching kids to be literate.

    I taught in Indonesia for three years and one of my national colleagues who learnt english, not a natural speaker, informed me of the 13 or something number of tenses in the english language (yes, probably not accurate, I don’t know the exact amount, not important to this argument). She knew them better than me, could explain them better than me, but I was still a better writer and speaker of English than her. And not knowing them now, doesn’t make me any less literate. Good writing sounds good, and good writers know how to make their writing sound good, but that doesn’t mean that they know necessarily what a subjunctive anything is.

    I completely agree about those basics, David, but even then, the associated meta-language isn’t one hundred per cent necessary in all cases. If we want to develop better writers, we should be focusing on engagement with the writing process, purpose, audience and enjoyment.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan couldn’t read music. Just saying…

  17. […] Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that this was a mistake and that being taught traditional grammar can make a big difference to children’s ability to write effectively. I found that if children mastered grammatical knowledge to the point where they knew it so well that they didn’t even have to think about it this gave them an enormous advantage when trying to write about complex ideas. I’ve written about what and why grammar should be studied here. […]

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