Many non-native English speakers, as well as some native speakers, consider learning grammar as a necessary evil. To most people, learning grammar during their schooling years is about memorizing a series of rules and doing rote-learning exercises and drills. Unfortunately, that need not be the case.
After all, what is grammar all about? What is it for? Actually, the benefits of understanding grammar allow us to:
- create and understand meaning (Grammar gives words, phrases and sentences a common structure that facilitates mutual understanding.)
- improve our skills for effective communication with one another (Without basic grammar rules, it might not that easy to communicate with another person.)
- improve our critical thinking skills (Grammar increases the language flexibility for nuances and subtleties.)
Currently, there are two schools of thought on the issue of learning grammar. According to one view, the importance of acquiring the grammar skills and rules as part of the language learning process is emphasised for the following reasons.
- Grammar is like a sentence-making machine. Without universally recognised rules to abide, there will be confusion in human communication.
- Grammar rules allow the user to fine-tune his intended message and correct any ambiguities.
- Like the rule of law, grammar provides structure to a language.
On the other hand, another view warns of the danger of an overly rigid interpretation of grammatical rules for the following reasons.
- By stressing rules over content, the learner's interest in mastering the language and his potential in linguistic expression are stifled.
- Non-verbal cues often play a role in human communications, which will more than compensate grammatical mistakes.
- Strict grammatical rules are often a legacy of the past. Given the lively nature of language which has evolved over time, grammatical rules will also change too.
Regardless of either school of thought, it is useful to understand the basics of grammar as they do help the user to express himself better, as well as understand the nuances of the language, whether it is in spoken or written form.
The following is a series of key grammar topics, organised in a manner for easy understanding.
(1) Knowing the word Classes
- Nouns - words used to name things, ideas, people, places and events
e.g. student, home, democracy, love
- Verbs - words used to describe actions or a state / condition
e.g. eat, drink, become, jump, run
- Adjectives - words used to describe how things, people or places look or feel
e.g. purple, hot, easy, fat
- Adverbs - words that allow us to know the circumstances (i.e. manner, time and place) in which an event took place
- Pronouns - words used to replace a noun in a sentence
e.g. The boys are hungry. They would like to eat now. / The teacher is unhappy with Mary. He thinks that she is playing truant.
- Determiners - words used to clarify what the noun is referring to
e.g. I saw the boy whom Susan was talking about. / She likes this color, not that one.
- Prepositions - words used to describe the position of something or the time in relation with another
e.g. The cat sits on the mat. / We will meet her after she has finished her class.
- Conjunctions - words used to join other words or groups of words
e.g. Tom and Jerry are good friends. / She tried to warn him but he would not listen to her.
(2) Nouns and Noun Phrases
(Noun phrases are essentially a group of words centered around a noun. Example: "The angry man" is a noun phrase, which is centred around the noun (i.e. man).)
- Types of Nouns
(i) Proper / Common Nouns
- Proper nouns are names of specific people, places, times and occasions. The first letter of the word is in the upper case.
e.g. Japan, Iraq, The White House, Thanksgiving, Beethoven
- Common nouns are names of ordinary things, people, ideas, places and times.
e.g. table, chair, kitchen, chauffeur, computer, bedroom, morning
(ii) Abstract / Concrete Nouns
- Abstract nouns refer to ideas, feelings, qualities that cannot be quantified.
e.g. love, happiness, communism, fatigue
- Concrete nouns refer to things that you can see and touch.
e.g. spoon, car, house, table, paper
(iii) Countable / Uncountable Nouns
- Countable nouns can be counted / enumerated.
e.g. one boy, three pigs, ten books, twenty chairs
- Uncountable nouns cannot be counted / enumerated.
e.g. coffee, sugar, air, cotton, water
(iv) Collective Nouns
- Collective nouns refer to a group / unit of people, animals or things.
e.g. army, choir, audience, spectators, flock, herd, a school of fish, a gang of thieves
- Understanding how to identify the main components of a sentence (around a noun phrase)
For example, in the sentence "The four naughty school girls, who came to school late today, were punished by the headmaster. " can be broken down as
[Noun Phrase] "The four naughty school girls, who came to school late today,"
[Head Noun] "girls"
[Premodifier of Head Noun] "The four naughty school"
[Determiners] "The four"
[Postmodifier of Head Noun] "who came to school late today,"
See if you can break down the following sentence into (i) The Noun Phrase; (ii) Head Noun; (iii) Premodifier; (iv) Determiner; (v) Adjective; (vi) Noun; and (vii) Postmodifier. The answer is provided after the image below.
"These hot and spicy Mexican chillies, which are grown in Tabasco, are very popular in America."
The answer is as follows.
[Noun Phrase] "These hot and spicy Mexican chillies, which are grown in Tabasco,"
[Head Noun] "chillies"
[Premodifier of Head Noun] "These hot and spicy Mexican"
[Adjective] "hot and spicy"
[Postmodifier of Head Noun] "which are grown in Tabasco,"
You might be wondering why it is necessary to learn such things. After all, you can communicate very well without having to know what a collective noun or postmodifier is. That's true. Then what is the purpose of learning the language fundamentals like the grammar?
Learning the grammar basics is like setting the foundation of a house. With a stronger foundation (i.e. understanding of the rationale of grammar rules and structures), your language ability can be further strengthened. Learning grammar basics is not for showing off or dwelling on technicalities, but rather to help oneself improve his understanding of the English language so as to be able to better appreciate its depth and utilize its full potential.