Is Grammar Useful?

Recently a frustrated English teacher posted this question online: What’s the difference between a direct and an indirect object?

I know the answer, of course – and I was tempted to explain the difference. But then I decided it would be better to ask a question of my own: Who cares?

Grammar gobbledygook (like “direct” and “indirect object”) is a leftover from a long-ago time when Latin was considered the perfect language. English teachers back then figured that if you learned the fine points of Latin grammar, you would be able to write as brilliantly as Cicero, Herodotus, and Virgil did.

What happened instead was that confused students memorized heaps of language concepts that had nothing whatsoever to do with English.

Take a look at these sentence pairs:

I gave him a dog.

I gave a dog a bone.

Now look at these sentence pairs (in Latin):

Canem ei dedi. (I gave him a dog.)

Cani os dedi. (I gave a dog a bone.)

The word dog is different in both Latin sentences: canem (direct object) and cani (indirect object). But in English, a dog is always…a dog.

If you’re not learning Latin, why do you need Latin grammar? I say you don’t.

But I have English teacher friends who sincerely believe that students should know these terms. I’ve gently asked them to explain why they matter. The response from them is always bewildered silence. They had teachers who thought grammar was really important, and they’re determined to keep that tradition alive.

That’s not a good enough answer.

Please, please – spend your time learning the skills that will help you write better. If you’re not sure where to start, go to your library and find a good book about writing – something with advice you can use right away.

Or (another suggestion) read up on something that interests you. That’s a great way to improve your vocabulary and sharpen your sentence skills. (Just make sure it’s not a book about grammar!)


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