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Grammar Does Not Exist 2

OK, so…a few losers had the unmitigated gall to question me (question ME???? QUESTION me???!!!), and were whining 😀 about the previous “Grammar Does Not Exist” post. Let’s clarify quickly how one would go about dealing with this thing that doesn’t exist.

1. Look at a grammar book if you want, but don’t worry about the rules — you can even ignore the rules if you want — just focus on the example sentences. This has been mentioned on other good language blogs.

2. Avoid learning about what you can’t do…this will only confuse you. Examples of incorrect usage tend to be especially damaging. In my observation of a lot of people (including myself), telling someone not to say something a certain way tends to make them say it that way even more, sort of like a “don’t think of pink elephants shooting up heroine” thing.

That’s it. Any complaints? Bring it! I’ll have Nigel over here release the hounds…

Unmitigated Gall and its Effects

  32 comments for “Grammar Does Not Exist 2

  1. January 30, 2009 at 21:27

    Hehe, funny that you say point 1. Until recentely I thought the same, now I simply say: screw grammar. Just ignore it fully.

  2. John Cotterell
    January 30, 2009 at 21:37

    New research seems to support what you’re saying to some extent:

  3. January 30, 2009 at 22:09

    Perhaps someone said this in response to the last post but, the only issue I see is that you can look up 行く in a dictionary, but not 行った。
    As far as wrong things to say, well, it can be fun to put things like 田舎おっぱい into people’s heads. 😀

  4. January 30, 2009 at 22:59


    Thanks for writing another brave post. I actually just enrolled in a linguistics course, and everything you wrote on this site, especially the pieces on grammar not existing, have been spot both.

    Both the grammar rules that books tell you exist, and the ones that natural speakers tell you exist, are simply arbitrary markers on a constantly changing system of communication. It happens because of language being both and open system and an interactive one.


  5. January 31, 2009 at 02:19

    I agree. I think that grammar, in regards to language acquisition, should be looked at through the general scope of “the end justifies the means.” It seems more efficient to focus on acquiring the language and not analyze why you say something that you’ve acquired the way that you do. But if, in the overall scheme of things, it would be more efficient or encouraging for a person to glance at a few grammar explanations when the person is feeling lost or discouraged, then by all means do that. If grammar is anything at all, it should at the very most be a tool. Nothing more.

  6. beneficii
    January 31, 2009 at 02:52

    Insight: Generally, once you get your language acquisition momentum going, introspection with regard to your language acquisition is a waste of time. After all, where is the introspection by small children who learn language just fine?

  7. January 31, 2009 at 05:12

    The only caveat I’d add is that to acquire good grammar by your method, you need to be immersed in text and speech that uses good grammar to begin with. If most of your English exposure is LOLcats (to pick an extreme example), then oh noes! U be in trubbles.

  8. January 31, 2009 at 05:20

    I’ve been telling people “Grammar is just a model” for years.

  9. beneficii
    January 31, 2009 at 05:26


    Actually, just make that speech. If you’re interested in writing, perhaps that is different.

  10. nest0r
    January 31, 2009 at 05:54

    Whatever, I’m beyond these petty dualities. I attained grammatical enlightenment as a child. *I’ve* got the glow. And you know what you must do when you’ve got the glow.

  11. QuackingShoe
    January 31, 2009 at 05:57

    Sadly, I’ve only met possibly one English learner who doesn’t speak like a LOLcat so far. I think the solution might be “Don’t let language learners have access to IMs.”
    Actually, scratch that. I prefer “Don’t let native teenagers have access to IMs.”
    There, that should do ‘er.

  12. Alexkx3
    January 31, 2009 at 08:57

    I knows what ya mean Khtaz. I remember alot of langauge snobs, getting upset when I told them that there’s not such thing as their precious little grammar. They get offended, like it devalues them as intellectuals and academics, if there’s no rules and fancy terms to their skills (habit).

    I always ask them to say their next sentence, but to use the grammar rules they know to construct it. It’s not how we do things.

    I was helping my Japanese friend on an online English test, and when he said “why is that wrong?” All I could say was, “it sounds wierd.” The grammar comes as a rationalisation afterwards.

    I work, you work, they work, he workS she workS kinda thing

  13. January 31, 2009 at 11:05

    The way I see things is, you’re going to acquire grammar in the natural order (Stephen Krashen), even if you drill it. It’s just like learning a foreign word using a translation. You aren’t truly understanding it until you understand it the way that the Japanese do. Use things like Tae Kim’s guide for example sentences, and explanations to satisfy the need for a reason. Really, those drilled patterns act as a crutch to assist you in learning more using native sources and monolingual dictionaries. Just read, listen, watch, and it’ll all come together, just like you learned your first language. At least, I think so. 🙂

  14. January 31, 2009 at 12:30

    @ Glowing Face Man

    “all models are wrong, some models are useful,” George E. P. Box, Statistician (sorry no 日本語 version)

  15. Daniel
    January 31, 2009 at 19:45

    Tommy’s posted quote is exactly how I feel. Trying to learn a language mainly by learning grammar rules is like trying to drive a car mainly by doing math. The model is just insufficient for practical use. And I think most grammar books fall under the “teaching how to drive a car through learning calculus” category, while, for example, Tae Kim’s Japanese Guide to Japanese is a useful model; instead of teaching the calculus behind how the car operates, he teaches things clearly like “putting your foot on the pedal makes the car go forward”.

    I’m notoriously bad at using metaphors as you can tell, but I can’t find another way to address this subject.

    I think what I’m basically saying is that all the English grammar guides written are basically crap except for Tae Kim’s…as for the ones written entirely in Japanese, why not use them since that’s simply practicing your target language.

    Still love this site, waiting for Khatzumoto: the Novel.

  16. Ryan
    February 1, 2009 at 05:06

    This post is MUCH clearer than the previous one–also, shout out to all the people who pointed out that a grammar is a model (and models, like all concepts, are useful even though they involve a degree of abstraction and a degree of falsification).

    But I’m still not sure why so many people seem to denigrate grammars and then hastily add an exception for Tae Kim’s Guide. What’s so special about it? There are plenty of grammars that have copious example sentences, the majority of which are taken from authentic sources. Glancing at my own bookshelf, I can name “Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage” and “Oxford Japanese Grammar and Verbs,” as well as some of Khatz’s own recommendations such as “All About Particles.” All of these books take a descriptive approach to language and omit things like fill-in-the-blank exercises.

    I think the most important thing is to use a grammar to supplement your input and increase your comprehension, not as some weird textbook to learn how to produce conjugated verbs.

    Also–losers and whiners? I think you can take criticism better than [i]that[/i].

  17. Daniel
    February 1, 2009 at 10:44

    Shout out back to Ryan, because I thought his post in the part 1 thread was pretty insightful.

    About Tae Kim’s guide, in my personal experience it’s the only (and I do mean only) piece about Japanese grammar written in English that has helped me even a little bit. And it didn’t just help, it made things extremely clear in what I can imagine to be the most efficient way possible. Extremely impressive if you ask me…after digesting that guide for about a month, I never had to look back, not even once, and I could just dive into real japanese with hardly any confusion whatsoever.

    I’m sure there are other decent works out there but I can’t imagine them being any better, and definitely not more efficient since the book format tends to lead to inefficiency (gotta fill up a whole book to sell, right?).

    Anyway, I’m not trying to bash other works, just support and promote Tae Kim’s guide…I don’t care if grammar really exists or doesn’t, or what learning method is best and whatnot, all I know is that that guide is the friggin’ bees knees.

  18. February 1, 2009 at 11:41

    … and regarding the usefulness of the model of language we call “grammar.” There was, actually, one grammar rule I learned way back when I first began studying Japanese, (oh, god was it really ten years ago? I still can’t read a newspaper? I thought the Japanese language education system was bad…) that i think is very useful, it’s called the five-finger rule. When you explain a sentence to someone and they ask “why?” you simply put out your hand and show them all the grammar you ever need to know, one finger at a time: THAT’S. THE. WAY. IT. IS. Of course, if they’ve been brainwashed by terrible language education, they’ll probably want to know what “that” and “it” refer to… and what “the way” means, and immediately break out their all too easy-to-use electronic dictionaries*…. but I digress.

    I do think that grammar can be useful to explain the “meaning” of language. “Grammar” takes advantage of the fact that the adult human brain is good at recognizing and manipulating patterns.

    However, while useful, learning grammar is hardly necessary. In the same sense that a translation of a sentence only approximates the meaning of a sentence, grammar is only an approximate model (set of models?) of a language.

    With “generative grammar” (i.e. apply a rule to create a new sentence), you’re likely to apply a “grammar rule” to a far broader set of cases than actually exist in real language.

    “Descriptive grammar” (i.e. using a rule to understand/describe a pre-existient sentence), could be useful-but the chance to abuse the rules and turn them into “generative grammar” is always there. As a language teacher here in fair nippon, the only time I really have to explain grammar is in this very instance-you learn a rule to describe one sentence (descriptive [also, deductive reasoning, btw]), and naturally assume that that rule applies in every instance (generative [inductive reasoning, btw]), and when it doesn’t well, add another rule to the pile, and another couple bux to Oxford university professors who want the whole world speakin’ English so they don’t have to learn another language when they go on their sabattical to the mysical orient. In short, generative grammar gives rise to the need for descriptive grammar because they are too easily confused.

    However, what Khatz is pointing at is that grammar is not some fundamental property of language-it’s not the mysterious system that lies behind all linguistic interaction-it was created to explain language the same way we can (or would like to be able to) explain everything else in our world. In the words of Lord Heisig “This idea arises from a certain bias about learning that comes from an overexposure to schooling: the notion that language is a cluster of skills that can be rationally divided, systematically learned, and certified by testing.” Unfortuantely, language doesn’t work this way and grammar exists only as much as we allow it to-only as much as we need it to.

    The beauty of AJATT/Antimoon sentence method is that it works on something more powerful than our ability to recognize and manipulate patterns- our ability to intuit meaning. Use your brain, not your textbook (or, rather, use your textbook properly) and remember the one grammar rule to rule them all: that’s the way it is.

    *a comment about 電気辞書s in general: this came up in a discussion comparing Japanese and American education. Someone mentioned they remembered they were surprised seeing “those big calculators” (TI-85s) in high school math classes in the US, and that “here in Japan, we do it all by hand.” I said they looked like electronic dictionaries-ubiquitous in japanese eengureesh classes. And then thought: Hmm… Americans suck at math, and Japanese suck at language: coincidence that we both use these tools as a crutch?

  19. Ryan
    February 1, 2009 at 12:00

    I think three things make Tae Kim’s guide especially useful for input-oriented beginners:

    1) It is brief and introductory, but
    2) It covers all the important points, and
    3) It contains many many example sentences

    I think these advantages outweigh the problems with the guide (such as the unnecessary pseudo-English translations).

    Anyway, it’s not that other grammar books are “inefficient,” they’re just a lot more detailed (“The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” which describes pretty much every grammatical phenomenon in the language, is 1,860 pages long) and therefore ill-suited to cover-to-cover study (because all the additional stuff they contain is probably stuff you want to learn through input).

  20. Ryan
    February 1, 2009 at 12:11

    “And then thought: Hmm… Americans suck at math, and Japanese suck at language: coincidence that we both use these tools as a crutch?”

    Actually, it is. The Japanese suck at langauge because they use the same ridiculous techniques in their schools as we do, but they can’t get away with it because their language is so radically different from English. And Americans suck at math because American schools are terrible (read John Taylor Gatto), and will look especially terrible compared to those of the Japanese (who famously have infinite respect for formal schooling). You think that, say, German school students aren’t using graphing calculators, or that Khatz never used an electronic dictionary?

  21. Daniel
    February 1, 2009 at 19:00

    I’d like to comment on the electronic dictionaries…because as an “English teacher” in Japan (I work at one of the big 3 right now, so it’s quite a stretch to actually proclaim myself a real teacher) I’ve become infinitely frustrated with them. Mostly because people here learn English exclusively through translation (someone correct me if I’m wrong). These dictionaries are not at all a tool for speaking, due to the aforementioned radical difference between English and Japanese. So, it’s not a crutch, because it doesn’t help one wit. I can’t recall even one time in my teaching career that someone has stopped mid-sentence, looked up something in their dictionary, and came up with an evenly remotely appropriate word. You’d think people would start to think something is little funny after awhile but…

    I can’t think of a real use for those things other than a tool for quick approximate meanings while reading…but for speaking its a disaster. I mean, the other day I got “uxorious” thrown at me. Is there anyone here that uses, let alone knows the meaning, of that word? [interesting side note: that’s actually a vocab word on the 英検一級]

    Anyway, this is all pretty off-topic, but I’m getting so annoyed at people running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming about how they must learn English and they’ve “studied” for X amount of years but still can’t understand or produce anything, and no one seems to take a step back and say “hmmm, maybe the method we’ve been using all these years is whack?”.

    Back to Tae Kim, I was surprised at your comment about the pseudo-English translations being unnecessary because I found that to be, initially, the most helpful part of the guide.

  22. February 1, 2009 at 23:24

    To elaborate on my comment about electronic dictonaries, which was a bit off the cuff: Of course, dictionaries are an invaluable part of productive language study-if used properly. Electronic dictonaries make what used to be a chore into something relatively painless-a step forward for language learners. But, (just like graphing calculators) their convenience can be easily abused.

    Electronic dictionaries (and TI-85s) are not the problem-far from it. At best, their misuse could be considered a symptom of a larger problem. Correlation (i.e. the correlation between high electronic dictionary use and low language ability in Japan) does not imply causality (high electronic dictionary use causes low language ability in Japan).

    Personally, I don’t own an electronic dictionary- even better I own a Nintendo DS with DS楽引辞典 (ラク・ビキ・ジ・テン), cheaper than Wordtanks, handwritten Kanji input, and of course it has a J-J dict (and chrono trigger). My laptop has a dictionary built in too, and I’m also hoping to use a chrismas present iTunes card to buy a dictionary for my iPod. The next phone I get will definitely have a dictionary built in, because now I have to connect to the internet everytime I want to look something up. Basically, at any point during my, day I’m within arms reach of at least two different electronic dictionaries, but I learned to tame my reflex to grab for it every time I hit a stumbling block. My criticism of 電気辞書s is not really about the object itself, but their use.

    There was a point where I, too, would stop people and say “wait while I look it up in my dictionary.” I learned quickly that was a hassle, now know its usually faster to just ask “what does X mean” and get a brief explanation or synonym that I may or may not understand-and then just move on in the conversation.

    @ Daniel
    As a side note about eikaiwa. I just ate dinner with a couple Japanese friends who started studying at Geos a little before I met them (a year and a half-ish ago). When I first met them, they couldn’t speak any better than the average Japanese high school graduate, and were chained to their electronic dictionary whenever we hung out. But they kept studying, and tonight me any my non-japanese speaking friends were able to carry on conversations with them pretty smoothly. The electronic dictionary only came out once during the whole evening and i’m fairly certain it never actually got turned on. My other friend also mentioned that he had started to watch movies in english with english subtitles. I guess miracles do happen.

    If you’ve read this website, you’ve probably figured out by now that languge classes are ridiculously inefficient and painful way to learn language. But I think that nevertheless we shouldn’t just give up on (traditional classroom/school based) language education. It can work-but needs to be reworked.

    I need to stop reading this website! too much english!

  23. Jess from Rupert
    February 4, 2009 at 07:00

    I recently went to a lecture on behaviorism put on by a child psychologist and your “tell some one not to do something and they will probably end up doing it” comment rings true to this type of thinking where impeding on someones learning can often backfire (especially when that person is new to a subject).its a much more natural process to learn things your own way and have fun when your starting out; worry about sanding after the carving is done sorta thing.

  24. Naomi
    February 7, 2009 at 04:01

    This is kinda off topic…meh
    Does anyone know if death note has furigana? I was gonna buy it, and searched to see if it had rubi, but I came up with nothing =_=;

  25. QuackingShoe
    February 9, 2009 at 12:30

    It does. Btw, you can usually find that sort of thing out by doing a google image search on a title. There’s usually scans floating around.

  26. February 13, 2009 at 17:34

    First off, I just found your site through a link that someone on posted. I love this site, and the advice you give, and the way you teach (in a sense.) I agree with so many of the things I have read so far, including this idea about grammar. In fact, I always had a hard time learning English grammar… for the longest time. So much so, that I never actually learned it. I never wrote an essay in my life until late highschool, and even then, I only wrote one. Now I’m in college, and I’m always at the top of my class when it comes to writing. This happened almost magically. It seems to me that I learned grammar simply through experience — reading and writing what little I did. At the beginning of my first college English class I took the time to look a few things up on Wikipedia, after that my writing just improved more and more, to the point where it is now, and I do believe my writing isn’t half bad.

    I am currently in the process of learning Japanese, and though I only found this site today, I have been using some of the methods you speak of already. I listen to Japanese music almost exclusively, as well as watching subbed anime (I’m not fluent enough to fully understand anything not subbed,) and generally surfing the net, picking up what I can, where I can, including watching videos of Japanese talk shows online. I have been procrastinating formally studying Japanese through books or through multiple sources online (i.e.,) but that is something I will be doing as soon as I finish my current semester of college work.

    Thank you for the insightful advice you give. You have a new reader. ^^

  27. Shea
    February 14, 2009 at 10:05

    Daniel, I work at one of the “Big 3” as well…and you know what’s sad? Our Head Teacher (who’s Japanese) will come up to me and ask me a grammar question (and after experience I know how this will go) in that no matter “answer” I give her she will ALWAYS check her electronic dictionary. I ask her why she even bothers to ask me and she says “Because you’re a native speaker and you speak the most natural way”….then I reply “Then WHY do you check your little dictionary to check to see if I’m correct?”

    She walks away saying she has other things to do….what is it with people’s dependence on these things?

    Personally, I’d hate having to rely on such a machine to get me through anything. Imagine me asking a Japanese person what something meant or why and they tell me…yet I have to go check something made by Americans or British to see if it’s correct what they’re telling me….stupid.

    On terms of grammar. I tell my students to follow this method honestly. I say coming to class and using our books are important (part of my job…have to say that kinda thing) but in counselings I tell them LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN, no matter if they don’t understand or not. I give them advice sheets on sentence mining, acting out native pronunciation, etc…and tons of websites in English to practice with….I want them to learn as naturally as possible heh.

  28. beneficii
    February 21, 2009 at 11:33


    What you watch is subbed in what language?

  29. The Amazing Kurisu
    February 26, 2009 at 10:08

    Interesting. I waded through Tae Kim a while back, but I found whenever I entered his sentences into the SRS, I would want to do it less and less. Eventually I stopped altogether because it was a boring waste for me and concentrated on manga captions and other things that interest me.

  30. Kay
    February 28, 2009 at 08:41

    I got a general question about reading, not really sentence picking or anything like that, but just reading.

    From my previous experience with Japanese I’m about 99.9% familiar with Hiragana/Katakana (sometimes I mess up here and there but I can generally read and write all of them). Wanting to practice my new-found knowledge of Kanji from Heisig I began to look through my stack of Japanese magazines for Kanji that I knew. I then got a little braver and have started ‘reading’ the magazines out loud to myself, skipping over the Kanji I don’t know. I would read a sentence Hiragana/Katakana and when I get to a Kanji I don’t know say ‘skip’ and continue on till the end. When I get to a Kanji that I have learned in Heisig I say the meaning that I learned (because I don’t know the reading yet.). The thing that I have come across is, because of my previous Japanese experience I do know the readings to some Kanji, but I also know that many Kanji have multiple meanings and I only know one, sometimes I know the second one but that is rarer.

    I was wondering that for the Kanji that I do know the meaning of, should I try to say the meaning that I know or should I skip it and wait until I encounter it in Heisig and focus on the meaning? Also, what about the ones I know both readings to? Sometimes I’m not sure which reading I’m supposed to use. I’m having a lot of fun reading my magazines (even though I don’t understand its giving me a lot of practice) and I’d like to continue to have fun!


  31. December 15, 2009 at 07:26

    I’d like to address an earlier comment about “generative” grammars and applying a rule to broadly. Ever heard a kid say “goed”? Now you know why.

    My point being, that formally learning a descriptive/generative grammar is not always, or even usually, “necessary”, but compared to the sort of grammar Khatz is *really* objecting to, it’s much more useful.

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