By Mordechai Schmutter
People are always asking me why grammar is important. Well, mainly my students.
But it comes with the job. I’m a grammar teacher. It’s my job to get kids to say things correctly, while simultaneously reminding them that they shouldn’t talk in class.
“These are the rules. Don’t practice them now.”
This is why we’re falling behind countries like Japan in the subject of English grammar.
Every book I’ve ever read on the subject says you should learn grammar. People who think grammar isn’t important are severely underrepresented in the book department. Maybe they should put out books, but the publishers are all pro-grammar and won’t allow it, at least without proofreading. And then it will be a grammatically correct book about how grammar isn’t important. Maybe the whole thing is a conspiracy.
But it doesn’t help me that the kids have decided that certain expressions are proper English based on the fact that they’ve heard people—perhaps adults—use them.
For example, when my kids were in camp this year, a major war broke out between red and blue, whatever that means, because certain colors just cannot get along, and everyone’s hot and irritable. And one of the songs (every war has songs) included the phrase “We’re going to win the blue team.” This bothered me, because “win the blue team” means that they’re going to receive the blue team as a prize. And there’s no reason they couldn’t have written “We’re going to beat the blue team.”
But I understand that people make mistakes. What bothers me is the permanence. They made up a catchy song and wrote it down and drilled it into these kids’ heads over and over—loudly—and in a few years, a lot of these kids will be in my class, and I’ll say, “Beat the other team,” and they’ll say, “No, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people say ‘win.’”
And then what? I tell them it’s wrong? At worst, I’m saying lashon ha’ra about the counselors, and at best, the kids are going to say, “Well, who am I going to believe? The guy who spent two weeks trying to convince me that not only is there a difference between adjectives and adverbs, which there clearly is not, but that it’s going to matter for my life? Or the guy who took me swimming and taught me fun songs about how blue is number two and red is going to knock ’em dead?” (Which I’m also not convinced is proper English.)
But the biggest source of arguments, as far as grammar, is that my students want to know why I need to teach them about the parts of speech—nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc. And that’s what I start off with. I can’t very well teach those things at the end.
Their argument is that when you’re writing, do you think, “I’m going to put a noun in here. Now I’m going to write two verbs! Wait—one verb. Then I’ll use a preposition, followed by a noun. Oh, I already used a noun.” No. You just put in the words. You don’t have to know what they’re called.
From the students’ perspective, they’re thinking, “Well, we’re not going to listen when you teach the rules later in the year anyway, so why do we need to listen to terms now so you can better teach us rules later? If we’re not listening at the beginning of the year, what makes you think we’re going to be listening at the end of the year?”
And it’s not just one class of students fighting me on this. It’s not like your own kids, whom you can teach something and then they’ll know it, even though they seem to need constant reminders. (“I said no feet on the table!”) When you’re a teacher, no matter what you teach your class, the next year you get a brand-new class and you’re back to square one.
Being a teacher is like being on the front lines of the field of education. And it’s like a battlefield in the old days, where, basically, they had two crowds of people run at each other, and whoever had more soldiers left standing at the end was the winner, and they got freeze pops. Also, there were singing competitions. (“We’re the North, North, and we’re gonna set forth!”) And even if you were an amazing warrior who could kill the first 100 rows of soldiers, eventually you’d get tired, and Row 101 would come at you, all fresh from doing nothing but being stuck behind a crowd trying to run into your crowd, and extra mad about it. So the soldiers on the front line never came back.
And that’s kind of how I feel. The kids ask, “Why do we have to learn grammar?” and I tell them. And then the next group of kids asks the next year, and I tell them. And eventually, after enough years of doing this, I’m like, “Why do we have to learn grammar? Maybe they’re right.” Hundreds of kids are saying we don’t have to learn grammar, and I’m one person saying we do, and I already know grammar. If everyone says, “Let’s not have chicken,” and one guy says, “Let’s have chicken,” and he’s already had chicken, then maybe you shouldn’t have chicken.
Math teachers probably feel the same way. They come in and say, “2 plus 2 is 4,” and then they correct everyone’s wrong answers. But after enough years of that, they start thinking, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe 2 plus 2 is cat.”
So now I’m doubting myself. Will the kids need grammar when they grow up? I think so. I need grammar. But then, I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m a grammar teacher. Of course I need grammar. (I’m also a writer.) Do people who aren’t writers need grammar? They don’t seem to. But that’s like walking into kindergarten and going, “Why do I need to learn to use scissors? I’m never going to be a barber.” Well, sometimes non-barbers need to cut straight. Someday you’ll be a parent, and you’ll have to cut box tops. For education.
But people do actually need grammar. For example, people hire me to write things for them. And a lot of times, I tell them I’d like to communicate back and forth in writing, so I can send them questions at three in the morning. But arguably, if they knew how to write, they wouldn’t be hiring me in the first place.
Of course, the truth is that (A) I obviously don’t judge their grammar, and I clarify everything they send me if it could be misunderstood, and (B) There’s a difference between good grammar and good writing. Every book you’ve ever read has been grammatically correct, but not every book has been good.
And anyway, if all my clients were concerned about was grammar, they’d just run a grammar check, which will point out several things that aren’t mistakes and miss the rest. Case in point: my computer keeps insisting that instead of saying “lashon ha’ra” earlier, I should have said “lotion Hora.” (The checker is okay with “hora,” because that’s a dance. But it wants me to capitalize it.) But if I listen to it, I’ll have a sentence that contains the phrase “lotion Hora,” which makes no sense.
But the thing is that even if my students win the argument, it doesn’t really matter, because this whole education thing is an agreement between their parents and the school’s business office, and parents choose a school specifically because of which subjects it teaches. So in other words, the parents want the kids to learn this. It doesn’t matter if the kids don’t. If the kids wanted to learn it, the parents would just teach it themselves.
But I do say that if the parents want their kids to learn proper grammar, they should stop misusing it in front of them. Or stop talking to your kids altogether if you think it’ll help. Otherwise, we’re never going to win them.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.