What's the point of learning grammar

Many Australians were never taught grammar. That’s left them in a rather frightening place. Tony Spencer-Smith
Tony Spencer-Smith


Many Australians were never taught grammar. That’s left them in a rather frightening place because they make grammar or punctuation errors and only realise it when people – whether a boss or a customer – point this out to them.

The travails of grammar ignorance were amusingly pointed out by the TV and radio producer Gemma Sapwell in a comment piece called ‘The Generation Grammar Forgotted’, which she wrote for the ABC website some years ago.

I’m enrolled in a Spanish language school in Mexico and while the majority of students are American, it’s easy to spot the Aussies because they’re the ones invariably wearing looks of bewildered terror every time the teacher says a word like “infinitive” or “conjunction”.

They’re the ones pacing the grounds at lunchtime mumbling to themselves “verb, verb, verb is a doing word”.

And at night, back at the hostel, instead of the conversation revolving around the usual triumvirate of travel topics (how long have you been travelling, where are you going next and what’s your current diarrhea status), they’re the ones cursing the Australian education system for not teaching them grammar and having conversations like this:

"What the hell were they thinking not teaching us basic grammar?! It’s humiliating, I sit in class and I’m not even sure what an adjective is."

Gemma Sapwell, The Generation Grammar Forgotted

She says grammar is making something of a comeback in Australian schools but asks 'where does that leave the millions of Gen X and Ys who don’t know a preposition from a proposition?'

Sapwell herself, who went to primary school in the 80s and high school in the 90s, and went on to obtain a degree in philosophy and journalism, says she made it through the entire education system without being taught how to structure a sentence properly.

Another source of bumbling business prose is the informality of email, texting and Twitter, where loose language is tolerated. Such language is fine in the world of social media but wreaks havoc with the image of the organisation in the marketplace.

Language columnist Richard Nordquist has written about the six reasons to learn grammar which the British linguist David Crystal outlines in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language1.

Crystal writes that learning grammar means 'being able to talk about what it is we are able to do when we construct sentences – to describe what the rules are, and what happens when they fail to apply.'

Two of the reasons for learning grammar he gives are:

Exploring Our Creative Ability. Our grammatical ability is extraordinary. It is probably the most creative ability we have. There is no limit to what we can say or write, yet all of this potential is controlled by a finite number of rules. How is this done?1

Solving Problems. Nonetheless, our language can let us down. We encounter ambiguity, and unintelligible speech or writing. To deal with these problems, we need to put grammar under the microscope and work out what went wrong.1

For those who find themselves inadvertently floundering in the often-arcane world of grammar, the only answer is to make an effort to learn it.

The good news is that the important bits can be learnt quite easily. The rest can be left to the linguists in their ivory towers.


  1. Crystal, D. (2003). The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

First published . Last updated 18 Jul 2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Tony Spencer-Smith

Tony Spencer-Smith loves words. He has worked with them all his life – ever since he published his own magazine while still in primary school. He moved on to become a prominent journalist, an award-winning novelist and a corporate writer and editor. In his training, he inspires others to share his enthusiasm for the power of language. Tony is one of Australia’s top corporate writing and editing trainers. In over a decade he has helped thousands of people from blue chip companies, government and not-for-profit organisations to upgrade their communication skills.

The broad experience he brings to his training includes being Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest magazine in both Australia and South Africa; a senior newspaper journalist; and a corporate editorial expert who has written speeches, brochures, reports, websites and internal communications for top clients.

His children’s novel The Man Who Snarled at Flowers won the biggest literary prize in South Africa, while his latest book The Essentials of Great Writing was published in Australia in 2009.

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