Admittedly, National Grammar Day is not the best-known holiday in March. The reasons and ways to celebrate a day dedicated to grammar may not be as self-evident as other more obscure holidays like National Napping Day or National Oreo Cookie Day (both coming up in the next few weeks). The fact is, grammar is always a touchy subject—both for the crusaders of the written word ready to smite any split infinitives they see, and for the larger population who seem intent on avoiding it altogether. Fortunately, March 4th is a day that we can use to revisit the roots of what grammar means, and celebrate what it accomplishes in our language.
How most people feel about grammar. . . and why it’s weird they feel that way
Whenever I meet someone new and have the “So what do you do for work?” conversation, there is always someone inclined to pick up on the word “writer” and interject with something along the lines of “I’ll have to watch my grammar around you!” It’s a playful enough comment to elicit a chuckle on both sides, but behind their laugh, there’s usually a mild tension that hangs on through the end of the conversation. It’s like they’ve suddenly become aware of a blemish on their face magically visible only to writers, and are self-consciously waiting for me to correct the last pronoun they used, or recommend a different adjective with twice the syllables.
The truth of the matter is that most writers aren’t walking out of their houses hefting the largest book of grammar rules they can find, ready to pounce on any errors they encounter with a bright red marker (and I’d personally like to avoid any who are just as much as their next victim.) Unfortunately, rule books and red marks are how most of us have been conditioned to perceive grammar, and we’ve all felt the sting of a bad grade or awkward social embarrassment when we get it wrong. Apart from the enduring anxiety that grade school teachers seem to have inflicted on the U.S. population, it is strange that grammar is almost exclusively thought of in the contexts of formal writing and speech. In fact, grammatical systems apply to every form of language: from papers, emails, and text messages to phone calls, casual conversations, and musical lyrics.
Vocabulary.com defines grammar as “the set of language rules that you use, most of the time unconsciously, to create phrases and sentences that convey meaning.” Far from being a niche world exclusive to the highly-educated or syntactically-gifted, grammar is a system that is used by everyone participating in linguistic communication, without exception.
What’s so great about grammar
What I like about Vocabulary.com’s definition for grammar is that it recognizes most of grammar is unconsciously practiced. Thousands of years before the skill of writing was established, grammar was flourishing and evolving within the earliest human languages, taught naturally through speech, and internalized effortlessly through daily communication. This is, in fact, how everyone begins to learn grammar. From a young age we associate words with concrete elements of the world around us, like “red” and “ball,” and pick up on ways to describe the relationships between those words, such as “to be.” While, independently, words are a jumbled collective of parts to a sentence, grammar gives us the blueprint of how to put them together: “the ball is red.”
Despite what an over-zealous English program may have taught you, there is no ideal standard to the grammar of human languages. Systems of other languages may enforce a different arrangement and inclusion of these words, translating our simple sentence of “the ball is red” very literally as “the ball red,” or even “ball is red that.” Even though these are legitimate ways to express the same meaning in foreign languages, an English speaker may only glean a partial understanding of their direct meaning even when the words themselves are no more difficult to understand. This examination of grammar between languages shows how wonderfully subjective the arrangement of words can be, and that there is no steadfast law in nature dictating exactly where your pronouns need to go. But there are rules.
Why so many rules?
“The ball is red” helps us easily describe a single trait of an individual object, but a grammar system allows us to vastly increase the complexity of our communication. These systems give us the tools to express ideas about relationships, age, size, value, and time. They give us the rules for how to speak in different tenses and place the context of our language in the past, future, or even a potential future that may never come to exist. It therefore follows that the more abstract our topic of discussion is, or the more precisely we wish to convey a very particular thought, the more complex our grammar becomes.
Let’s advance our sentence to another example: “I know you prefer blue, but what if the ball were red?” In these few words, we establish that there are multiple parties engaged in dialogue, suggest a level of familiarity between them, define the interests of at least one of the parties, and transition the conversation from the present state of things to a conditional future to evoke an alternative idea of how something can exist under new circumstances (all in a succinct, 12-word sentence).
If you’re looking for a challenge, you can see how many ways you can rearrange the words in that sentence to express the same meaning, but without factoring in the rules of English grammar, I’ll let you know right now that there are over 479 million ways to arbitrarily arrange those 12 words. Without a mutually understood system of grammar, the sentence would become utter gibberish that two people could speak past each other for actual years, to no avail. Grammar allows us to unify our patterns of language, setting out common expectations and methods to express incredibly intricate strings of information with incredibly few words.
Ways to celebrate
So, we see that grammar’s roots extend far beyond dusty volumes of randomly adopted mandates to govern our writing. Instead, it is a system of organization imbued into every language that becomes the vehicle to share ideas and meaning. With that in mind, I find it much easier to be grateful for the capabilities that grammar gives us, rather than the annoyance it may evoke, and certainly think that the miracle of structured human languages is worth celebrating.
If you’re looking to participate in this holiday and deepen your appreciation for grammar, try some of these activities:
- Check out differences between Standard English grammar, and the grammar used in different English dialects across the world.
- Talk to a non-native English speaker about grammar in other languages they may know, and what they think about English grammar compared to their first language.
- Find some grammar jokes to tell, or spread this one: “The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense!”
- Learn a little-known grammar rule to impress your friends. Check out our Timely Tips for suggestions!
- Explore some other National Grammar Day posts online, or share this one!