5 Reasons Why English Grammar Is So Difficult

August 12, 2015

Don't let them fool you. Even they struggle with grammar. (image via wikimedia)

English grammar can be tough.  Even people who enjoy reading and writing have a difficult time getting all the rules right.  When I was in college, I got careless with a composition and messed up a bunch of “its” and “it’s.”  My writing instructor admonished me, saying I couldn’t be successful in a writing profession by making basic mistakes.

At the time, I knew the rules, but I also knew I had a tendency to get careless, so I ended up going into a profession that has nothing to do with writing.  It’s my fault I didn’t choose a writing profession.  But almost everybody struggles with grammar, so if I blame grammar for my problems, almost everybody will agree with me.

Below are five perfectly good, rational reasons that explain why English grammar is difficult.  Any errors in grammar are unintentional and not meant to be ironic.

#1- The rules are nitpicky. 

English grammar has some really strict rules.  Don’t split infinitives.  Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Be careful to use “who” as a subject pronoun and “whom” as an object pronoun (I had to look that one up).  A bunch of words sound the same but are spelled differently, or a bunch of words are spelled the same but have different meanings, or a bunch of different words can have the similar meanings but different connotations.  And I haven’t even gotten to verb tenses yet.

Grammar might have been more productive in high school if the focus had been on the basics, like when to say “she and I” instead of “her and me.”  That’s important.  Split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences?  Maybe not as important.  But I’m not an expert.

#2-  People don’t like to get corrected. 

I don’t know if there is a good way to correct grammar, but there are a lot of annoying ways to do it.  I think teachers are taught to answer the question “Can I go to the bathroom?” with “I don’t know, can you?”

When I was a student, this led to many unnecessary classroom confrontations between kids who wanted to leave class and teachers who wanted their students to speak properly.  All a kid had to do was to rephrase the question (usually with an eye roll) as “May I please go to the bathroom?” The “please” was sometimes optional.

But some kids were too stubborn to do that and simply returned to their desks.  Those were the kids who just wanted to hang out in the hallway for a few minutes and didn’t really need to use the facilities.  To me, hanging out in the hallway was worth rephrasing the question, and I threw in the “please” without being prompted.

The good news is that I know the difference between “can” and “may.”  The bad news is that the teachers who did this were so annoying (from our point of view), we probably ignored everything else they tried to teach us for the rest of the class period, such as the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

#3- Most people don’t use correct grammar most of the time. 

A big problem with grammar is that most people don’t use it in their everyday conversations.  We say “ain’t” and “got” and a bunch of phrases that send English teachers to early retirements (but hopefully not early graves).  As a public school student years ago, I worked hard for 45 minutes a day on grammar that I wouldn’t use for the other 16 hours I was awake.

The cool people (or the people who I thought were cool at the time) didn’t speak properly, so there was little incentive to practice outside of school what I was learning in English class.  And that was (and is) a problem.  If people concentrated all the time on speaking correctly, then people would get better at speaking correctly.  But that would take effort, and most people don’t want to put that much effort into something that we think should be effortless.

#4- There are so many exceptions in spelling and pronunciation.

I like rules.  I’m a rule follower and a law abiding citizen.  As much as I like rules, however, I believe the rules should be consistent.  If rules aren’t consistent, then people won’t follow them.  That’s how it works with child-rearing; that’s also how it works with spelling.  The more inconsistencies there are with a rule in spelling/pronunciation, the less likely people are to get it right.

As a kid, I learned the “I before e except after c” rule from a Charlie Brown special on television, but even that rule is inconsistent.  That taught me not to trust any spelling rule, and now I have trust issues in all facets of my life.  Even spell-check is no guarantee that a writer has the correct word.  If a computer can’t figure out if a word in context is spelled correctly, then how can a mere human figure it out?

#5- “Grammar” is not spelled the way it sounds. 

People pronounce the word “grammar” as “gram-mer.”  It’s spelled as if it’s pronounced “gram-marrrrr (like a pirate).”  If grammar is going to have strict rules, it should at least follow basic spelling and pronunciation guidelines.  It’s almost like a politician who writes a law and then exempts politicians (or government officials) from their own rules.  The word “grammar” should not be exempt from its own rules.

And as long as “grammar” is spelled like it is, people will struggle with grammar.


What do you think?  What makes English grammar so difficult?  What rules have you always struggled with.  If you don’t struggle with the rules of grammar, what is your secret?



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