Written by Sam Benkelman. Sam is a Linguistics concentrator from Harvard with a secondary in Computer Science. He is particularly interested with the cross-linguistic structure of language, and he recently won the Fulbright Fellowship to teach English grammar abroad.
I used to have a lot of trouble falling asleep. It seemed that, no matter how hard I would try or how tired I was, there was always a period of around half an hour each night during which I could be found tossing and turning in bed, just trying to calm my mind and hit the hay. Over the years, I developed several techniques for bedtime relaxation, my favorite being thinking through silly language puzzles: I would take a sentence - “the boy didn’t go to the store” - and try to see how many meanings I could give it by stressing different words; or I would take that sentence, add or subtract a word, and marvel at how the meaning changed. “The baker baked the woman a cake” is a normal English sentence, but “the baker baked the woman for a cake” launches into a silly world with almost the opposite meaning. How was it that a change as small as a few letters could make the difference between banality and absurdity, or outright nonsense?
Grammar is a fundamental piece of human language. It is so fundamental, indeed, that we humans experience strong, almost physical reactions - like nails on a chalkboard - when we hear an utterance that is clearly not grammatical. I know this feeling well: I almost smashed a laptop one time in high school over the lack of an Oxford Comma. Happily, I didn’t smash it, but instead, took that opportunity to explore the reasons I felt so strongly about conventions in language by using that same laptop to compose an essay on the topic as part of my application to Harvard.
The Oxford Comma Essay was successful and set me on a direct course to learning more about grammar. When I took my first university class in linguistics, I learned that this thing we call “grammar” is at its root a way to model the way our brains actually process language; the rules we are taught in school are attempts at a tangible embodiment of the amazingly complex processes running in the background of our minds whenever we read, write, or speak.
At the level of conversational English, though, our brains’ internal understanding of grammar is so ingrained that we tend not to notice it working or. The result is the miracle of spoken communication! But every once in awhile, I think many people have been in the situation in which our internal grammar picks up on some mistake in a sentence, one that gives us that weird feeling of “that sounds wrong,” but our active knowledge of grammar can’t explain it, and so we just don’t know why the sentence is bad. In my childhood bed as I lie awake at night, it was these types of utterances that I could spend hours on end thinking about.
Teachers and parents may have told you that it is important to learn grammar because it will make you a better writer; because it will help you with standardized tests; simply because it is good for you. These reasons are all good enough. But at the end of an undergraduate degree in linguistics and a lifetime of nighttime hours devoted to the topic, I suggest another reason to learn the rules of grammar: learning these teaches us, in a very real sense, the way our brains work! Just like physisists study the forces and rules of interaction that govern the world around us, grammarians study the similarly complex world of the mind and of human communication. We lovers of grammar are scientists of the one field with which we intentionally interact and which we use perhaps more than any other; I cannot think of any “eureka” moment more satisfying than the one marking a discovery that teaches me more about myself.
Suffice this all to say: I love grammar. I love discovering new rules, I love testing the limits of the rules I already know, I love applying this knowledge to my own writing and speaking - and I hope, through the Eyre Writing Center, to share this love of grammar with my students!
Sam is currently a grammar instructor at EWC and will continue to teach all four grammar modules (I-IV) in the Summer 2020. You can take our diagnostic quiz here to determine which level of grammar to take. Please note that if you are a new Grammar student, you could only enroll into Grammar I (beginning of "Grammar Fundamentals") or Grammar III (beginning of "Grammar & Style"). You can enroll here.