The Vocabulary of Grammar

Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.

I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.

This piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date.