Errors & Omissions: The Importance of Teaching Grammar for Grammar's Sake

By Keleny, Guy | The Independent (London, England), January 22, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Errors & Omissions: The Importance of Teaching Grammar for Grammar's Sake


Keleny, Guy, The Independent (London, England)


This week, all pedants must rush to the defence of grammar teaching in schools. Its recent revival may have been put at risk by a York University study which concludes that formal grammar teaching does not help children to write better.

It would be silly to claim that grammar is essential - one of those mental tools such as literacy, arithmetic and IT without which everyone would be disadvantaged. But grammar - the technical vocabulary for describing words and how they work - is a useful and agreeable skill of the same order as algebra or music. That is why the York University research is of limited application.

Grammar is a skill for life whose value goes far beyond any improvement in teenagers' prose style.

Indeed the professor who led the study agrees that grammar teaching may be "interesting or useful in its own right"; he merely finds that it doesn't help pupils to write better. To which I reply, "So what?"

Grammar makes it easier to learn foreign languages, and to appreciate the beauties of your own. For instance, anyone can sense that, say, Gibbon and Orwell write differently, but if you are trying to describe the difference it helps a great deal to know what an abstract noun is and observe that Gibbon uses many of them and Orwell few.

We reported: "Schools are wasting their time teaching children the rules of English grammar because there is no evidence that it has any impact on pupils' writing skills, a government-funded study has concluded." That doesn't follow at all.

Should know better (1): Knowledge of grammar can certainly help you to avoid some basic errors in usage. We have suffered a rash of them in the past week. On Saturday, for instance, a news story referred to Prince Harry "laying low yesterday at his Highgrove home". Several readers have written in with cruel (but merited) jibes on the lines of "What was he laying then, a carpet perhaps?" We should have written "lying low".

Here comes the grammar. There is an intransitive verb "lie" which has the past tense "lay" and means to be in a particular place, often in a recumbent posture. There is a transitive verb "lay", with the past tense "laid", which means to put something down.

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