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Why is Knowing the Whys of Grammar a Waste of Your Time?

You don’t need a reason why, you just need to know that’s that’s how people — natives — say things. That’s more than enough for you do to deal with right now. Why create work for yourself?

Just copy. Crib. Don’t “show your work”. Cheat. Go straight for the right answer, no ifs ands or buts.

About the only time I have found knowing reasons why to be remotely useful on a consistent basis is with punctuation. Punctuation seems to need a reason and seems to be relatively consistent about it. A full stop marks the end of a sentence.

Grammar and usage, however, simply works by fiat. It may have a logic, but not one that’s worth you trying to plot explicitly, like the the trajectory of a ball on a graph. Just catch the ball. Grammar and usage is because it is; they are because they are. Anything we invent afterwards is just a comforting myth, a just-so story, maybe even entertaining historical fiction, but that’s all it is.

Too many exceptions means don’t bother looking for a pattern; you’ll just end up “stereotyping” and being wrong; if words were human beings, it’d be prejudice 😛 . Too much argument means the reason why doesn’t matter — because no one really knows. And if you read any academic papers on Japanese grammar, you will find plenty of argument — on the most basic of issues, on issues you’da thought would be settled. In fact it sometimes seems that the simpler and more common the word, the more heated the arguments. Copula this, である that, is です really the same word…

Leave the reasons why to the philologists; you just need to talk proper.

And how you do you do that? Just copy. Crib. Don’t “show your work”. Cheat. Say what natives say. Why is it right? Because they say it that way, that’s why. That’s all the right and why you need, that’s all you handle right now. People are always complaining about how “hard” it is to “learn” a language — well why not stop doing stuff you don’t have to do and that won’t help you? It’s a start, right? Stop hauling water up the steps and start using taps.

Stuff is right because native speakers say it (is); it’s a matter of general consensus, not raw, naked reason. An invisible democracy of sorts. Even “wrong” usage eventually becomes right if natives begin to decide it is. And vice versa. Standardized spelling in English is only a couple hundred years old.

But what if you like knowing why? Good. Great. Go for it. But don’t kid yourself that it’s going to help you speak better, because it won’t. It’ll just help you know why. Maybe you can go on Jeopardy with that trivia. It can make you a better pedant and give you something to look down on people for and make them feel inferior about at parties; I know it doesn’t look like it, but I’ve been a dues-paying member of the Grammar Nazi Party, too, you know.


You have so much on your plate already. And it isn’t helping you. Lighten the load. Give it to Samwise. Drop the whys and the grammar tables and have a lighter, funner trip.

Or maybe you like pain…

  9 comments for “Why is Knowing the Whys of Grammar a Waste of Your Time?

  1. Michal
    April 16, 2014 at 22:25

    Dear Khatz,

    I have been lurking around your blog for some time and found it helpful in many ways. Let me give you some information abput myself first: I was brought up with 3 different languages, of which I still speak 2 fluently: German and Polish. During school I started learning English, French and Spanish. Out of these 3 I have become fluent only in English, even though I still have basic skills in the other two, i.e. reading simple texts. Japanese is the 7th language I started to learn.
    Even though I generally sympathize with your ideas, I would like to disagree with you here. I believe that learning formal grammar is not a waste of your time. For one, there may be people who find that learning grammar in itself satisfying. It allows you to consciously relate patterns within a language, that you may have ignored otherwise. Much like learning music theory, it opens your eyes for broader structures, prevents overgeneralization of assumed ‘rules’, and deepens your meta-knowledge. For me, it has never been a burden, but always a great supplement to my other learning methods.
    More importantly, grammar gives you a tool to prevent confusion between different languages. It is true that you can acquire high proficiency in a language without ever opening a book about grammar. However, what if you have already knowledge in similiar languages that will interfer with your ability to express complex ideas? For example, I doupt that I would have been able to internalize English sentence structure without having deliberately pondered upon the differences between German and English grammar. Grammar is a great heuristic if your exposure to a specific language has not been so high recently.
    It may well be that my claims are limited to people with an inclination towards analytical thinking. Those people, however, do exist and their desire to ‘understand’ a language shouldn’t be dismissed as useless. This is by the way also represented in language acquisition theory: The so called “monitor” is a part of declaratif knolwedge about a language and is supposed to be helpful for specific types of learners.
    This being said, I hope that you can see a few positive points of laerning formal grammar. After all, truth is often a two sided coin.

  2. Nate
    April 17, 2014 at 17:36

    Grammar is great if you’re into that sort of thing. But you don’t need to study it to be able to use it.
    Doing your sentences, on top of reading and listening daily will get you to the point where producing grammatically correct sentences is as simple as breathing.

    “For example, I doupt that I would have been able to internalize English sentence structure without having deliberately pondered upon the differences between German and English grammar. ”

    I think you would have. 🙂

    AJATT is all about having fun with the learning process, so if you really dig grammar then by all means study grammar. You don’t need it to become a fluent speaker though, which I think is the message behind Khatz’s words.

    • Sebastian Karwowski
      April 17, 2014 at 21:19

      But it’s alot easier to learn the language by speaking/hearing/etc, not by memorizing grammar definitions. If you know how people say, and you know basics of language, grammar would be easy to actually understand.

  3. April 18, 2014 at 01:03

    It’s a coincidence that I just wrote a post exactly like this! Too many people who try to study Japanese focus too much on grammar. It doesn’t help that the majority of Japanese classes use textbooks that over complicate the issue. That’s why at the end of each class people leave utterly confused because we spent 45 minutes figuring out what a past participle is, and not how to actually say a sentence. I do agree that some people just like to study grammar and want to know the “why’s” and that’s fine. But the majority of people are not like that. It’s just like how some people enjoy learning how to build and take apart computers. Most people just want to know how to get on the internet and check Facebook, while there are those people that want to know the inner workings of the technology. You don’t need to know how to put a computer together to know how to use one. Just like a language.

    The “why’s” don’t really matter in the long run; when you think of it, native speakers don’t even know the “why’s”! The way we learn languages is too wrapped up in the study of grammar and linguistics, which makes learning languages seem way harder than it actually is. There are some people who will argue you to death about why grammar is so important…but I honestly think those people just want to show off their supposed extensive knowledge of grammar to make themselves seem like a smartass. :p

  4. Jumi96
    April 18, 2014 at 03:16

    I intend to doing it like this: Acquiring grammar in Korean naturally and after that (after 2-3 years I think) I will use grammar to learn interpunction rules and buy a grammar book in Japanese to see If my acquired Grammar is right (I think it will be but I’ll just do it to prove myself that it’s right).

  5. kyub
    April 18, 2014 at 12:02

    i really don’t get the argument pro-grammar learners (in the beginning)use to justify what they do. MAJORITY of these ones are the people who still cant even articulate a sentence in their target language or even understand 70% of a basic kids program. No doubt some have become “fluent” by studying grammar first but honestly when you assess what they do, the “fluent” ones actually use the methods advocated on this site (immersion through media and other resources). If anything, the BEST way to utilize grammar in a target language through study is AFTER you have gotten a decent grasp on the language. LEARN the target language *grammar* IN the target language. IT JUST MAKES SENSE!

    But of course everyone is free to do what they want. It just boggles my mind that people will literally spend upwards to 3 years “learning” a new language through grammar study method. If its an oral language, get used to the sounds first. There isn’t a grammar book for every language out there so in order to pick up an oral language, like Khatzu said, the ears are sacred.

  6. juxz90
    April 18, 2014 at 17:33

    People obsessed with grammar books tend to be inexperienced in the topic of language acquisition (which is totally fine, and that’s where places like AJATT come to play), not serious about actually learning the language with a practical purpose (which is ok too) or just unintelligent, or any combination of these.

  7. Michal
    April 19, 2014 at 01:04

    To be fair, I would agree with everybody who claims that you can acquire a language without having a deep knowledge of grammar. Personally, I believe learning some grammar first helps me getting into a new language faster, because it sets up some sort of ‘framework’ to work with. I read through Tae Kim’s grammar guide in about a week and it has definitely helped me to get a deeper feeling for the language.
    But yes, many classes put too much emphasize on grammar! Kyub, your words totally hold true for many Japanese learners of English I have met during my stay in Japan. Basic communicative abilities apparantly don’t spring from cramming conjugation tables.

    • Michal
      April 19, 2014 at 01:08

      Btw, English is my L4 and studying some grammar has obviously not hurt my progress. So yeah, learn grammar if you want to, but don’t feel obligated if you don’t. Simple like that?

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