Hacking Grammar: How to Learn Grammar with No Exceptions
It started with the goal: explain English grammar with no exceptions.
I’m a native English speaker and an English teacher in Japan. When I started teaching, I went along with what was printed in the textbooks. Grammar textbooks for ESL and EFL learners typically present a grammar point, then some examples that support this point. If you don’t give it too much thought everything seems well and good.
But as time went by, I started seeing more and more holes in the typical rules of “standard” grammar theory. Students also see these holes and ask, “Why is this being used here?” Many teachers say something like, “Oh, that’s just an exception, the rules of language only apply most of the time.”
But it made me feel like I didn’t know what I was talking about. It just didn’t add up.
As time went on, I became more aware of poorly written rules that only apply some of the time. The same rules were common in many textbooks, but I didn’t feel comfortable presenting these to students because I knew that they weren’t accurate.
I couldn’t accept that that was how English works. It’s not the way it works in my head. As an English speaker, English makes sense to me. Traditional rules were obviously lacking something.
One day, I decided that I needed to hack English grammar so I could teach it more confidently — without the rules that didn’t match real-life usage.
When learners asked me about exceptions, I didn’t want to tell them to just accept the exceptions as the way it is. I wanted to help learners understand why a speaker would choose to use those words in that way.
I wanted learners to view each new piece of grammar they discover as a useful piece of language — an additional tool to help them communicate more clearly.
So, I quit my job, moved back to Australia with my wife and baby, set up office in my parents’ basement and began researching and writing full-time.
To write a grammar book that presents English with no exceptions, I decided to go back to basics: People learn languages to communicate.
It’s Not About Being “Correct” — It’s About Making Sense to Those You’re Talking To (Even If You Make Mistakes)
When I communicate naturally in English, my reason for using a grammatical form is not simply because it’s “correct”, but because it makes sense to use it. My main goal is to be meaningful.
In my head, the English language makes sense. I put words together to express myself and communicate my ideas. As a consequence, it is beautifully grammatical.
And this is consistent with the advice of many highly successful language learners. If you want to be a good communicator, simply start putting words together and talk to people. Don’t worry about making mistakes, keep trying it out and keep learning.
This is how I approach teaching English and learning Japanese, and it seems to work well.
This leads to the question:
“Do I Even Need to Study Grammar?”
As you learn a new language, you’ll keep learning words and expressions until you reach a point where you can communicate fairly well. You’ll understand a lot of what people say and you’ll be able to make yourself understood.
If you’ve reached this stage, then you’re likely aware that the way you speak is quite different from the way native speakers speak. Chances are, you sometimes sometimes have misunderstandings as you miss subtle details and nuances. You can communicate, but you want to do it better.
As Benny Lewis and others suggest, this is a good time to finally study grammar. The obvious solution is to find a good grammar book.
Good teachers and learners take the material that is available and adapt it to fit their needs. When the material is from an authoritative source, it’s easy just to trust it.
But many of these resources were written for traditional classrooms. So, they can leave you with the feeling that a traditional grammar book is not what you need.
There are different learning styles. If someone is learning by talking to people and making mistakes, it’s great if they have resources that support this method. There is more to grammar than remembering what to do and what not to do.
In my opinion, grammar resources should directly address the reasons learners feel they should tidy up their language. These typically relate back to the learners’ main goal of communication.
Many learners want to make better sentences to avoid misunderstanding and communicate their ideas more naturally.
If learners want to learn grammar because they want to speak clearly and naturally and understand the language more deeply, these are the areas that grammar resources should address.
A New Perspective: from “Starting with Correctness” to “Starting with Communication”
I found that focusing on communication, interaction and enjoying using a language worked really well for me and for my students.
As a beginner, communication is a great place to start.
Japanese learners often find it liberating when they can simply communicate and not worry too much about forming correct sentences — which has been the main focus of English study in Japanese schooling.
But then, they want to tidy up their sentences, which means grammar. And grammar study often comes back to the correct forms and usage rules and exceptions that have bamboozled many beginners.
When you think about it, this “correct grammar” is quite a big deviation from the path my students and I have been taking in our language learning journey.
As you learn more of a language, you may feel like you need to start getting more serious about grammar. You may want to put our words together to form sentences that are more natural and clearly express your ideas. To do this, you can stick to the principle of starting with communication and build from there. When you become an advanced communicator, what you say will be naturally grammatical.
Rather than looking at “What is correct?”, the first questions to ask yourself are:
“Why is this part meaningful?” and “Why do people choose to use it?”
One of the complaints learners have about rule-based approaches and striving for grammatical correctness is that there is too much to remember. But when you start with meaning, it becomes part of the language you use because it makes sense and you understand why it is useful.
To get good at grammar, you need to learn more of what is useful and keep finding out what the different words, expressions, and other parts of the language mean.
How This Approach Removes the Exceptions
Removing exceptions really comes down to this change of perspective.
Many exceptions arise because people try to put grammatical forms and structures into neat little boxes, with each form or structure assigned to each situation. This is the way it is often presented, so many learners think this is the way it is.
Here’s what I recommend you do: look at grammar from a different point of view and think of language as something that is highly adaptive and flexible.
By studying grammar, you can develop your understanding of what each part means, how you use the same basic parts in a wide range of situations, and why.
Based on this perspective, I wrote my book Real Grammar–Understand English. Clear and Simple. I started from this perspective when writing and dove deep into the grammar of my own language. I have found it works. When I think about or explain English grammar there are no exceptions.
During the writing process, I researched each English grammar point and its uses. Although it was challenging, I now have a good general view of why we use English the way we do in any situation. Before it made sense subconsciously, but now I am deeply aware of it.
I think it is important for learners to have resources that approach grammar from a perspective that makes it clear for them. As teachers, we don’t want to confuse learners, we want to clarify the language for them.
Resources that enable learners to see how a language works can offer very useful information to help them answer questions that have been puzzling them about the language.
Language learners are bound to notice some things that just don’t seem to make sense. People with a genuine interest often naturally ask “why is that?” Sometimes these questions are ignored, but if answering this question helps you understand and gain confidence, find out why.
When you change your perspective on grammar, you can start connecting the dots in your head. You’ll see not only when people use grammatical structures, but why the structures are useful.
And this perspective allows you to hack many of the other complications of grammar study, such as rules, formulas, and linguistic terminology. You can look at simple explanations, images, and examples of each part in context to think about what it means. By understanding the meaning, the uses make a lot of sense, and there are no exceptions.
Hacking Grammar: Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions I get asked about grammar as an English teacher, and my answers now that I understand grammar differently:
Why Do You Need Grammar When Learning a Language?
You need grammar to put your words together well (which is how I define grammar) so that it is easy for people to understand you.
This can be done through trial and error and mass amounts of input, in the same way you learned your first language(s). But as adult learners, you can use language learning hacks to get what you need faster.
With grammar, you can better understand the parts of the language that puzzle you by approaching grammar from a meaning-based perspective that fits with your goal of becoming a better communicator.
What is the Best Way to Learn Grammar?
Many people have different opinions on this. Some say that it is good to get a basic foundation on grammar from the beginning, others say you should study it once you can communicate well, but I think there are many factors such as the learner and their learning style.