I studied grammar in school, and it stuck. I remember when to say “me” and when to say “I,” and what’s more, I can tell you why. I learned the parts of speech, I studied tenses and cases, and I diagrammed sentences. I even studied Latin which, we were told, would improve our grasp of English. Now I’m finally working on the fulfillment of a lifelong dream; I’m writing a novel. You’d think I’d be an avid proponent of the study of grammar, but… not so much.
Most people learn the grammar they need through conversation, reading and writing, not by poring over textbooks and filling in worksheets. Here’s an article in The Atlantic that makes that point. My daughter never studied grammar, yet seems to have mastered it nicely. Other people take the classes, pass the tests, and still founder. If you’ve ever tried to rescue a poor writer by explaining just why “between you and I” is wrong, you may have realized it was a misdirected effort. If they’ve gotten this far in life without getting the point, chances are a brief explanation won’t set things straight. And even if you manage to change their behavior on that one small point, there’s a world of other errors waiting to drag them down. They haven’t learned a general principle, only a particular rule.
Consider also that it’s entirely possible to write intelligible, interesting, lively and ungrammatical prose, or punctiliously correct prose that is boring and pointless. Writers like Richard Mitchell would have you believe that poor writing may sink ships and crash planes. While I admit the possibility, I don’t consider it likely. The greatest evil I see in most grammatical clumsiness is that it irritates hypersensitive folk like him and me, and maybe we should just get over it.
There are people for whom the study of grammar makes sense. If you intend to write and you want to write well, grammar is one of the tools of your trade. You need grammar to be able to talk about language. The Elements of Style is a book often recommended to aspiring writers. I like it, too, but have you ever tried to read it? It’s full of pithy advice like, “Gerunds usually require the possessive case,” which is helpful if you know what gerunds are. Or the possessive case. Most people probably don’t remember that stuff and don’t need it. For a subset of us, knowing grammar is very helpful; it helps us discuss writing with other people. For that you need the vocabulary.
Consider a mechanic working on a car. If he’s all alone, he can do an admirable job without knowing the names of his tools or of the parts he’s working on. But if he’s trying to read a manual, he has to know the names of things, and if he’s got an assistant, then it can be tedious for everyone involved to cope with instructions like, “Hand me that thingummy there — no, not that one, the bigger one beside it — so I can tighten these whatchamacallits.” Better to say, “Hand me the torque wrench so I can tighten the head bolts.”
Now suppose you’re working on this sentence: “Henry is the person who I want to marry.” You could explain: “Try turning it around. You wouldn’t say, ‘I want to marry he,’ would you? Well, who is like he, and whom is like him. So if you’d say ‘I want to marry him,’ then you ought to say ‘I want to marry whom.’ So it ought to be ‘Henry is the person whom I want to marry.’ ” Clear as mud, right? Alternatively, if both of you know grammar, you can say, “You need the objective case there, because whom is the object of the verb in your clause.”
My conclusion? Some people want to be able to tear down a car and build it back. They need to be able to read a manual. Some people want to write glorious prose. They can also profit from being able to read a manual. But most people just want to put the top down and enjoy the ride without worrying about the head bolts, and that’s just fine. Even on National Grammar Day.