Do you get nervous just seeing that word?
Do you think “I need to improve my grammar so I can speak English better”?
Do you spend a lot of time memorizing grammar rules but wonder why your English hasn’t improved?
Grammar rules are nice, but they should not be the main focus of your English studies.
Here are 4 important truths about grammar rules.
1. Grammar rules are easy to teach and easy to learn.
Grammar explains how words are organized in a sentence. When you speak and write, you have to put the words in the right order so that people will understand what you are saying or writing.
Rules make people feel comfortable. Learning rules makes students feel good. Learning grammar rules helps students feel confident that they are learning English.
Grammar rules help you do well on an English test. We feel proud of ourselves when we get a good mark on a test. If we get a good mark on a test, this means we can speak English, right?
Let’s be honest. Learning grammar rules is easier than listening and reading. However, it’s not going to help you speak.
If you want to speak English well, you need to know the correct order of words. You can do this by learning collocations, phrases, and sentences, not by memorizing rules.
2. English sentences don’t always follow rules.
A rule is something that you can or cannot do, or what you are allowed or not allowed to do.
You need to know how English grammar is different from grammar in your language. You need to know that there are some things that you can do in your language that you can’t do in English. English speakers say, “I am 30 years old” while French speakers say, “I have 30 years.” You can’t say, “I have 30 years” when talking about your age in English.
However, English isn’t perfect. It’s messy. It’s impossible to explain every English sentence with a rule. Sometimes the answer to the question “why?” is “that’s just the way it is!”
Don’t think of English grammar as a group of rules. Think of grammar as a foundation, the base of a building or structure that supports the rest of the building.
English grammar is the foundation of English. There are verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions. These words have different jobs.
You need to put these words in the right order, but there are many, many different ways to make a sentence. You learn the right order by listening to native English speakers and by reading things written by native English speakers.
3. Native speakers don’t learn many rules in school.
If you asked a native English speaker to explain what a relative clause is or what a coordinating conjunction is, they would probably say “I don’t know!”
We learn very basic English grammar in school. I am a native English and I speak English fluently, but I had never heard of a gerund or the present perfect tense before I started teaching English. I can communicate very well in English without knowing grammar rules.
Native speakers don’t learn English by memorizing grammar rules. Native speakers learn how to speak first by listening to everyone around them. At school, they learn how to read and write. Their English continues to improve the more they read and the more they listen to people around them.
I don’t think it’s fair to expect English learners to know grammar rules that native speakers don’t know.
4. Memorizing rules prevents you from improving your English.
What happens when you see a sentence that is different from a rule that you learned? Do you ignore the sentence? Do you assume the sentence is wrong? What if you are missing an opportunity to improve your English?
For example, did you know that you can use sentences with the present simple or the present continuous tenses to talk about the future?
What are you doing this weekend?
Did you know that you can use today with the simple past if you are speaking about an event that happened earlier in the day? Or did you learn a rule that said you can’t use present time words like today with the simple past tense?
What did you learn today?
(a mother speaks to her son after school)
When you try to learn English by learning rules, you limit yourself. It’s better to learn English by learning sentences instead of memorizing rules.
Did you learn a grammar rule in school, but later you learned that it was wrong? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Daniele Charlotin says
Thank you very much for sending this to me it will help me out
Hi Melanie,thank you so much for dedicating your time to teach us.when I was a child teachers taught us that for have we could easily do negative or question without do ,does and did .
Thank you very much
Leandro Medeiros - Brazil says
I agree with you…The rules many times are very confused.
Zulay Sanchez says
I am sure they Will be helpful, thank you for send me
Hi,Teacher Melanie your advice about learning English is hundred percent true.Your teaching is very helpful for me.I love your website.
I think with you. We have to read and listen as much as we can. The more I listen to native English speakers (e.g. BBC News), the more I understand the language.
Jessica Liu says
Thank you for emailing me this article.
I completely agree with your opinion. Chinese students are very good at grammars and they can get a good mark on a test, but that doesn’t mean they can speak English very well. :(
Thanks for useful advice!
Ava Rodgers says
Thank you so much. This will help me with teaching.
Johnson Lo says
I think the best way to learn English Is: When I practice English speaking, I usually listen to the native speaker and Audio-books. When I write a letter, I usually use grammar to final check if there is any mistake in it.
You’re right, i remember when i was in secondary school, i was confused to use the verbs (called actions in french) like go, come,…and wonder if they are used the auxiliairy be or have in the perfect tenses. sometimes i tried to translate english sentences to french but could not succeed. Unfortunately, english grammar is different from french. someone told me about the grammar rule and acceptability, what is it like to mean?
Thanks to think of us!
Martha yim says
Thank you so much for your time and email. :)
I’m so glad I’ve found you. Your articles are great and I can’t wait to read them all.
Speaking of rules, there was a video posted on fb about some young learners practising English. It was titled like this: “Although we are little, we practise Cambridge tests”. Is “we practise” correct or it should have been used in the present continuous form? My friend thinks the PC is right as the video shows an action happening now and it is temporary, but I think P Simple can also be used if we think the action is done in general, even if it is presented in the video as being done now. Who’s right? Thank you ever so much!
Welcome, Diana! I’m glad that you found me!
I agree with you that the present simple should be used when you talk about something in general, or something that is done every day as part of a routine. Was the video a commercial for a language school? If so, the present simple is correct because they are describing the activities at their school.
I am more concerned about the word “practice” (or “practise” in British English). In American English you can study for a test, prepare for a test, or take a test, but you don’t
practice a test! Perhaps it’s a British English thing? I don’t know. Was this a video by native speakers?
Have a great week,
Thank you for your time!
You are right about that “practise” thing. It can’t be differently used in British English. The video wasn’t by native speakers. It was about some children working on Cambridge sample tests in order to take their YLE tests. This is what they should have written, isn’t it? I guess it’s a common mistake that ESL learners (and teachers, too 😣) make – to translate in some kind of “môt-a-môt” way from their language into English. As you said, the best way to speak a second language is to spend as much time as possible among natives!
And back to the PS vs PC, I think they both work depending on the intention of those posting the video.
May you have a wonderful week, too!
José Roberto, Brazil says
Hello Melanie, my English Teacher,
I’ve been so satisfied for you be teaching me such as native English speaker communicate. Sometimes I spend a lot of time making sentences following rules.
Nowadays, I want do in of different way.
God bless you.
I am so happy to read many your advises about English.I have studied English since I was 6 but my English have never good.I must memorize grammar rules and using English along that rules from I start to study English so it is so hard to change because it become my bad habit.Could you give me some advices to improve my English ?
It is hard to change old habits. I know because I am like you. I memorized vocabulary and grammar rules for many years when I was learning French.
Do you like to watch YouTube or Netflix? Have you tried watching English videos while reading the subtitles or transcript in your language? This is a great way to get used to the sounds of English and learn new words and sentences. You can also watch English videos with English subtitles.
Try an experiment:
Watch this video from the TED.com website:
Find the transcript and subtitles in your language. Watch the video while reading the transcript and subtitles in your language. Then, watch the video while reading the transcript and subtitles in English. Then, watch the video without any subtitles.
What do you think?