Why grammar isn’t cool–and why that may be about to change

Despite its reputation, grammar is colourful and fascinating. Now experts report a renewed interest in the subject

English language can be fun if it is well taught, and we may be experiencing a grammar renaissance. Photograph: Lucien Aigner/Lucien Aigner/Corbis

A 15-year-old boy made headlines last week after writing a passionate letter of complaint to Tesco regarding bad grammar on its bottles of orange juice. Tesco claimed it used the “most tastiest” oranges, rather than “tastiest”, “most tasty” or “distinctly average”.

The fact it was deemed newsworthy shows how rare it is to see enthusiastic pedantry at such a young age (especially if there’s no strong family history of it). But before any grammar enthusiasts get excited, he admitted language was not the only motivation – he expected some Tesco vouchers for his ordeal.

Grammar rarely makes headlines, and when it does it’s often due to conflict over something the size of an apostrophe. But there’s a much greater issue that needs addressing. We complain that children cannot construct a sentence as they used to, but this nostalgic attitude towards literacy abilities has always been around. What we need to focus on is grammar’s reputation among the young.

Last month I attended a talk on grammar. In the weeks leading up to it I told a few people and their reactions ranged from laughter to looks of disappointment to disbelief. It didn’t get much better at the talk, where the discussion often steered towards the fact that students find grammar boring.

We are supposedly most receptive to learning a second language in childhood. But when it comes to grammar, it’s difficult to imagine a typical group of 10-year-olds debating whether or not to precede a gerund with a possessive noun or pronoun.

It’s a challenge for anything to be accepted as “cool” among younger generations, but we’d need to worry less about the future of society if grammar could finally earn some street cred.

Its current sorry state can be ascribed to several reasons. The first and possibly most insidious barrier to grammar’s image is the trail of fear left behind by old-fashioned grammarians and their pedantic followers. Instead of explanations and advice, grammatical errors are often corrected with scorn and ancient rules. This can project a sense of inadequacy that isn’t conducive to learning, and perpetuates the misconception that grammar is black and white, right or wrong.

I don’t entirely blame them – the pleasure of finding a typo is unbeatable – but pedants should confine such self-righteous pleasures to the privacy of the home. For the unconfident learner, the best advice was given by William Strunk Jr, author of The Elements of Style, who is alleged to have said: “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud.”

Grammar’s second barrier is the argument between prescriptivists and descriptivists, and the confusion this causes. I was taught never to put a comma after “and”, but what if I went to the shops with my parents, a sheep and a goat?

Outdated grammar rules are offputting when they create a barrier to clear communication. If I were to sneakily split an infinitive, would I not be understood? Grammar is instinctive. I never understood what it meant to enclose parenthetic phrases in commas, probably because it sounds too confusing, but I know to do it.

The third hindrance to grammar is its reputation. When we think of grammar we picture dusty textbooks, evil teachers holding canes and dry lesson plans. But grammar is colourful, and its ability to completely change the meaning of a sentence is fascinating.

The good news is that there have been a few small “cool” victories recently. YouTube channel jacksfilms regularly uploads   “Your Grammar Sucks”  videos for its 1.3 million subscribers. Perhaps the premise – laughing at grammatical errors – is one we should be steering away from, but it puts grammar in the spotlight.

Another example is the small victory for the word “selfie”, named Word of the Year last year by Oxford Dictionaries. A modern word that adds clarity in its own, self-obsessed way caught the attention of younger generations. If they can be excited about a word, grammar can’t be far behind.

Not everyone thinks grammar is doomed. Bas Aarts, professor of English linguistics at University College London, believes we are experiencing a grammar renaissance.

“Things have changed in recent years. Grammar was perceived as boring, but it was taught prescriptively and put people off. Language develops the way it wants to develop, and no amount of prescriptiveness will help. A lot of people who are against splitting the infinitive can’t even explain why.”

Aarts says the enjoyment of grammar depends on how it is taught. “There is a renewed interest in grammar, partly because of improved teaching, partly due to some very successful books on language.”

To test the grammar renaissance theory, I asked a class of primary school children to describe grammar in one word. Three said “interesting”, three said “helpful” and one said “boring”. I also asked a class of year 8 pupils: nine described it as “confusing”, two said “good” and the rest ranged from “useless” to “brilliant”. In another secondary school, the teacher said that, in his class, almost everyone said it was boring or dull, and a few said “pointless”.

The way we view grammar is subjective, and, as it turns out, the way we view how everyone else views grammar is also subjective. Perhaps grammar-lovers are just too uncool to know what’s cool.

But I do know anything trying to be cool is automatically uncool, and grammar shouldn’t have to try.Posted by

Jessica Brown

Friday 21 March 2014 05.00 EDT at The Guardian

Grammar Day 2014, presented by UCL and Oxford University in association with the British Library, will take place on Friday 4 July.


14 responses to “Why grammar isn’t cool–and why that may be about to change

  1. I’m looking at the Blackboard and this reminds me of how I was taught to write. People just don’t write this way anymore. Even our elder’s handwriting is unknown to the next person. Try reading the prescription from the doctor, if you can. let me know, because I can’t. Look at the person sitting next to you and their signature. If you did not know them then you would not know who the hell the signature belong too.

  2. I think grammar is something essential in school. The tone, projection, and clarity of one’s voice is a reflection of their grammar. We need a reinstitution because the voice of someone is what ultimately makes their image. Without grammar being essential, our culture and out attitudes will become degenerate.

  3. Priscilla K. Cornejo

    I do believe grammar isn’t taught enough but I dont think the kids should be blame, I think perosnally it starts with the insturcutors and even the home. The education system is not nearly where it needs to be at right now.

  4. They’re just kids, they shouldn’t be spelling like this and it should be address property but does it really need a news article on why this could be a problem. Sorry, but I just think this is a little blown out of proportion.

  5. Grammer isn’t taught enough and it is indeed essential in the progression of learning how develop essay writing. Grammar should be heavly stressed in middle school for better results!!

  6. Though language is evolving, I do think that grammar is important. Stressing its importance begins at school but I am a bit dismayed to see that the careless attitude towards grammar is not limited in children. The majority of people I know who wave away grammar as unimportant are adults. While I do believe that the education system should show children how important is, there also needs to be something to show adults how important it is, too.

  7. Grammar is not taught enough in school and when you write your paper is returned full of reds marks showing proper grammar. How do we learn if we are not taught. Teaching English needs to get back to the basics of how to write properly from an early age.

  8. Social media definitely impacts how young people view words. They’re accustomed to communicating in so few words that when they are forced to learn grammar rules, they automatically find it “boring”.

  9. Samantha R. Cimilluca

    I think that technology has had a negative impact on people’s grammar today. Especially texting on cell phones and shortening all the words. People are too lazy and careless. Grammar is important and everyone should know it and use it and speak it properly. I will admit that I have poor grammar skills but I am working on it. Grammar is a part of our education and people need to take it more seriously.

  10. I strongly believe that we should have good grammar. Having good grammar says a lot about an individual. It could say whether they care about what they are saying/ or how they are saying it. I understand that not very many youths of today will use good grammar because they do not want to spend the time to correct it. They only care if they get their point across. The kids of today do not care for having good grammar all the time. And some say it is the teachers/instructors’ fault. It could be their fault, but i have some doubt about that. I have received some papers that had some grammatical errors, and my teacher/instructor told me how to fix them. It could be that NOT all teachers do not put more effort into their students grammar or it could be that students just do not care if their grammar is good or not. I believe its all about the “drive” a student has, and how it affects others. Students do not realize how important it is to have good grammar because it reflects their output of education. For example, someone who does not care about good grammar will write a statement like this “i went to scool today and i learnt some stuff about english and i though that stuff was reel boooring”. That right there just says they do not care about grammar, and not sounding like they have some intelligence.
    On the whole, it is not an interesting subject to learn AT FIRST, but it can be. If we got all the grammatical errors from today’s youth and applied it to schools for teaching purposes, students (or future students) would then realize how important grammar is.

  11. I think grammar is very important for everyone to know. It’s not that hard. We all speak English and it’s important to speak it properly and be able to write it properly. Theres no excuse in not knowing grammar well. We have all been taught about English grammar since grade school. My Grandmother speaks English as a second language and she speaks better english than people I know who have English as their first language. It’s just sad and embarrassing to live in a country were most people don’t take education seriously.

  12. Rosamaria Valdez-Lopez

    Grammar definitely is not a necessity now a days as it was when our ancestors were using it. Throughout each generation there was an alteration to our language, and it slowly but surely did bring us to our current lingo. I do not think we should blame the kids for what they respond with, because that is what they are taught.

  13. In todays school the kids can talk and write anyway they fell like and there is no one to correct them Who is to blame?

  14. The enthusiasm of grammar starts with instructors. Many instructors do not grade based on grammar anymore, yet the content. Many instructors are degrading the children of the proper education they deserve or need. Thus, leaving students in a state in which they are only preset to fail. This country’s educational system needs to reach back to it’s roots and begin success again.

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