Maybe the title of this article conjures up memories of your middle-school English teacher forcing you to write out your entire spelling list for homework, every night! Or maybe you remember sitting in 11th grade grammar class listening to the voice at the front of the room drone on about proper format when doing research papers and the importance of transition statements.
I’m currently a high school English teacher, and, admittedly, I have made my students do these very same things. But why?
Why study grammar?
I believe that everyone should study and know the basics of English grammar and composition because, ultimately, we are all communicators.
Each person is a communicator. This stems from the fact that we are made in God’s image, and God is a communicator (Genesis 1:26). Over time, He has communicated through His creation, through the prophets, and then through Jesus incarnate. And it was the God-man communicating in words, sentences, and sermons that brought the most impact and understanding to the world.
Jesus was educated and familiar with the same literary devices I have posted on my bulletin board–idioms, metaphor, hyperbole, and even wordplay.1 We talk about “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man” without realizing we’re using a metaphor (John 6:53-54, also Matthew 7:7-8). “Strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel” is an idiom (Matthew 23:24). We understand the significance of phrases like “cutting off the hand that sins” and “hating your father and mother” because it’s exaggerated to make a point–hyperbole (Luke 14:26, Mark 9:23).
Jesus didn’t just communicate orally. He stooped down and scribbled a phrase in dust, a phrase unknown to us, yet powerful enough to save a woman’s life and convict the hearts of her prosecutors (John 8:8-9). He knew how to read a passage in the synagogue, revealing Himself as Deity as He did so (John 4:16-30). He was familiar enough with the language of the day to study the Scriptures and logically reason with the leaders dedicating their lives to the study of those same Scriptures (John 2:46-47).
However, whether or not Jesus had grammar class is beside the point—He knew how to communicate perfectly, and I believe we should do our best to do the same. Granted, our communication will never be perfect, but knowing how to shape, form, project, balance, and order our ideas will enable us to better communicate the love of God to others.
You may argue that “I haven’t written any research papers and don’t plan to,” but have you sent a text message lately? Have you emailed church members or business employees? Have you prepared a memorandum for a proposed project? We all communicate in written language, whether we are eight-year-olds texting a friend, 28-year-olds finishing a PHD in English Literature, or forty-eight-year-olds emailing employees about a company update. Knowing how to communicate well allows others to understand the ideas we are presenting.
Why can’t we “just wing it”?
However, we know how to speak, and most of us can do a decent job of putting our thoughts down on paper without remembering our middle school grammar lessons on adverbial infinitive phrases. Must we study those pesky phrases?
I attended an IMPAC2 conference last year, and I walked away more convinced than before about the importance of preparation in correlation with communication. “The greater the message, the greater the need to deliver it well.” This was the phrase repeated throughout the three-day conference. I don’t edit a text to my best friend when I’m asking when we’re going to meet up. However, POTUS convincing Congress of a new bill is going to plan, write, rewrite, and edit his or her words. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plea for Congress to declare war.3 As believers, we have the single greatest message the world needs to hear—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Should that not come with great preparation and organization?
Moreover, when you do follow the rules governing our language and thought, people are more inclined to listen. Public speakers who stumble through a disorganized speech and writers who ramble are not prone to producing many followers or likes. Nicole Frederick, in an article published by a UNC journal, stated, “… the ability to construct sentences is analogous to the ability to construct thoughts. Therefore, understanding and employing proper grammar are important for both educational and professional success”4 (italics added). And, might we add, necessary for sharing the gospel?
How does figuring out adverbs and adjectives in 10th grade help me communicate better?
I push my students to do the grammar exercises in their book because doing so builds a foundation that will allow for clarity in their oral and written language. Being able to separate and identify parts of sentences gives a student the skill to recognize and correct weak parts in a paragraph. Learning how to take a string of words, a sentence, and organize them onto lines on a diagram teaches logic. It’s the same reason we encourage little boys to take engines apart and put them back together. (After all, it is called the mechanics of grammar.) Author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, Susan Wise Bauer writes, “Weak sentences usually stem from thinking problems—and diagramming can help the student locate those problem points… Diagramming the sentence lays the logic of the sentence bare and reveals any problems.”5
R.I.C. Publication, a supplementary resource company based in Australia, agrees: “Learners who feel confident with letters and word patterns are able to read and comprehend more complex texts. They also have the necessary language tools to better convey their own ideas through both written and verbal communication (Westwood P. , 2005).”6
The Ontario Tech University, in a short article, titled “The Importance of Grammar,” acknowledges that “good grammar knowledge” doesn’t automatically “make you a better writer.” However, they continue, “It is recognized that it will help make you a more effective writer.”7 Knowing grammar “helps you to know how to craft words into coherent sentences, and how to form those sentences into paragraphs that successfully convey your meaning.” And, again, successful communication is the ultimate goal.
I believe that, first, grammar is a skill to be learned. Second, we are all communicators with the greatest message known to mankind. Take the time to learn the skill of proper written communication (if you haven’t already), so you can better communicate with those around you, whether they are college students, middle schoolers, or fellow members in your church.
- The Holy Bible, ESV. Crossway, https://www.esv.org/.
- This idea was shared with me by my coworker, Esther Swartzentruber. Credits to her.
- IMPAC Communication Conference, https://www.impac-conference.com/, Web accessed April 14, 2022.
- “Franklin D. Roosevelt Asks Congress for a Declaration of War on Japan.” http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/tmirhdee.html#:~:text=I%20believe%20that%20I%20interpret,Hostilities%20exist, Web accessed April 14, 2022.
- Frederick, Nicole. “The Professional Importance of Grammar and How it Should be Taught.” Pit Journal, Cycle 6, 2015. https://pitjournal.unc.edu/article/professional-importance-grammar-and-how-it-should-be-taught, Web accessed April 14, 2022.
- Baur, Susan Wise. “Why Diagramming Matters.” Well Trained Mind, 2016, https://welltrainedmind.com/a/why-diagramming-matters/, Web accessed April 14, 2022.
- “Some Questions and Answers about Grammar.” National Council of Teachers of English, 2002. https://ncte.org/statement/qandaaboutgrammar/, Web accessed April 14, 2022.
- “The Importance of Grammar.” Ontario Tech University, 2004, https://nool.ontariotechu.ca/writing/english-language-resources/grammar/index.php, Web accessed April 14, 2022.