Primary Primary Literacy

What is grammar for? Two parables and an answer

A guest post by author David Crystal.

‘An alien visited Earth and encountered a car for the first time (they don’t have cars on their planet). He looked inside it, and asked questions (he was an English-speaking alien) about what things are called – the spark-plug, the hub cap, the spare wheel. He couldn’t work out what everything did. He began to panic (for a head alien was later going to test him on what he had found out) and got depressed. Then somebody kindly pointed out that the purpose of a car is not to name the bits and pieces but to drive to places. The bits and pieces work together to enable this to happen. A light-bulb appeared over the alien’s head.’

‘A teacher arrived in a classroom carrying a bundle of flowers, but put them behind her desk. She went to the board and started to write up the names of all the parts of a flower – stalk, leaf, stamen, pistil… She gave each part a definition, and turned to the children. “I want you to learn all those terms by heart, and their definitions”, she said. “And then, and only if you get them right, will I let you have one of these flowers to hold, explore, and enjoy.” ‘

For many people, grammar is like that. They know the names of some of the bits and pieces, but can’t work out how they work together, or what their purpose is. Or they’ve been told to learn a host of technical terms without ever getting the chance to explore how these terms relate to the actual joy of listening, speaking, reading, and writing in real life. They have never really understood what grammar is for.

Grammar is the study of sentences – of how they are made and how they work together to express meaning in connected speech and writing. And sentences exist in order to make sense of words.

Words by themselves do not make sense.  A word like ‘cell’, on its own, cannot be interpreted, It has too many possible meanings. Is it to do with prisons? or biology? or batteries? or hermits? Only by putting it into a sentence can we work out which meaning is being communicated. ‘Living creatures contain millions of cells’. ‘There were three prisoners to each cell’. Now we know.

That is what sentences are for. They get rid of the ambiguity that exists in isolated words. They literally ‘make’ sense. Young children have to learn this great truth, when at around 18 months they realise that the one-word stage of communication isn’t enough to enable them to say everything they are thinking. They start stringing words together, making primitive sentences. The words are put in their place. Gradually the complexity of their sentences builds up as they think more complex thoughts.

It isn’t just sentences. Every little bit of grammar – tiny word-endings, parts of speech, tenses, phrases, clauses, and all the elements that make up English grammar – is there to help us ‘make sense’ and to understand each other. The only reason grammar can get complicated is that we are complex human beings, wanting to express complex thoughts. And that’s the pay-off. When we have mastered how grammar works we have the best insight into our own and other people’s minds.

David Crystal has written numerous publications, including for children and teachers, on the topic of language and grammar.

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