Nevile Gwynne’s latest grammar quiz in The Telegraph instigated a remarkable debate, upsetting a lot of people who did not score as highly as they would expect. In fact, several readers have characterised Gwynne’s test ‘fiendishly difficult’, arguing that it is not necessary to know the category to which grammatical structure belong in order to use them properly.
The latter is often true, since most of the grammar choices individuals make in their mother tongue tend to be intuitive, also a product of years of language use. Nevertheless, this also implies that, at some point in their lives, they have explicitly been taught proper grammar use but have later grown to follow the patterns of their own language unconsciously. In this sense, it is not surprising that learners of English as a second language tend to perform way better than native English speakers, given that such quizzes require some degree of metalinguistic knowledge which is often gradually lost in one’s mother tongue – save for individuals who keep studying the language consciously, such as various language professionals.
In any case, and despite difference of opinions about what it is that marks correct grammar use, the fact remains that it is not possible to follow or manipulate the rules of a language unless one actually knows them. Grammar does not have to be prescriptive and rigid, but it is the skeleton on which language is built, and this skeleton is quite flexible. Traditional grammar instruction does not exclude new verbal constructions which will be commonly accepted and understood; not knowing grammar does.
Instead of arguing about which grammar trend is the purest or most accurate, linguistic challenges of the kind should prompt us to brush up on our own language skills, thereby also gaining some insight to foreign language learning.
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