Firstly, you can’t understand English grammar. Like all languages, English is constantly evolving. Many hundreds of years from now, English as we know it will have changed beyond recognition. That being said, you probably came here to learn the standard English we have right now, based on arbitrary rules of “correctness” assigned by a group of white guys wearing funny hats who tried to fit the standards of Latin (a Romance language) with English (a Germanic language).
I mean, look at these guys:
Those are some funny hats.
1. Read an ESL grammar book
This is a tip I got from another editor, Anya Kagan–she’s awesome, and you should check her out here–and it’s the best advice I’ve gotten. What’s great about ESL books (English as a Second Language) is that they come from the position that the grammatical structures natives take for granted are new concepts. Because of this, ESL books not only take time to explain the finer points of English, but don’t use over-complicated verbiage (“big words”) to explain grammar. Native speakers rarely take the time to analyze English, and in truth, they don’t have to. They speak their regional variant(s) fluently and can navigate social waters well enough. Culturally, there’s this concept that “proper” grammar equals “formal” speech, so native speakers rarely have to follow the grammatical “rules” those white guys with the funny hats said were correct. In this instance, I’m talking specifically about American and British English, but chances are the current standardization of grammatical rules in any variation of English was made up by a bunch of white guys with funny hats (because, you know, Britain and that whole world domination/ colonialism thing).
2. Get familiar with some linguistic terms
Someone once told me that the only reason we failed to understand something was because we read a word we didn’t know, and instead of looking it up, we kept reading. Everything after that became gibberish, and eventually, we decided the subject wasn’t for us. With that in mind, I insist you become familiar with the following terms:
- Word classes (parts of speech)
- Verb tense
I know it seems like a lot, but I promise you’ll be proficient with these after an hour or two on Wikipedia and Dictionary.com. Pinky promise.
3. Get familiar with your regional variant
American English is different from British English, which is different from Irish English, which is different from Indian English, which is different from Australian English. And how many English-es are there? A lot. And they’ve all got their own rules. I don’t want you to memorize all of them–unless you want to. For the purposes of this step, I’m just going to insist that you know your own English variant’s rules and remain consistent with it. (Ex: Using “color” in American English, rather than “colour,” which you’d find in British English.) There’s flexibility with the rules in some cases. For those, it’ll be a stylistic choice on your part.
4. Learn punctuation rules
Perhaps the more rapidly changing aspect of English, punctuation rules can be a bit tricky. Where you place commas can change the meaning of the sentence, and there’s been controversy over punctuation rules, such as with the Oxford comma. I’m personally fond of the Oxford comma to avoid mishaps like:
I love my parents, Steve and God.
Now, your parents might be Steve and God, but we shouldn’t be left questioning that. You’ll find people who firmly believe the Oxford comma is erroneous and that it should never be used, but really what it comes down to is your stylistic preference. Just remember to be consistent and read up on all your punctuation.
5. Don’t be a Grammar Nazi
It took me several years to stop correcting other’s grammar (unless I’m being paid to do that). I mean, I was righteous about it, and the only reason I stopped was because I took a linguistics class that explored the history of English and how it evolved. “Proper grammar” as we know it was made purely as another way to belittle the largely uneducated lower class who didn’t speak like the bourgeoisie. (Remember those white guys in funny hats I was talking about? Yeah, they were highly educated professors who often came from the higher classes.) Policing other people’s speech is just about the most pretentious thing you can do, and there’s absolutely no reason for it. If someone says, “Where you at?”, because that’s a colloquial phrasing, keep your opinions to yourself. That whole “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” thing came from the white guys with the funny hats who tried to impose Latin rules on a Germanic language. So don’t be a Grammar Nazi.