She writes and speaks grammatically incorrect English,” said a friend of mine about one of his students. He teaches English at a premier English coaching institute in Pune. What struck me was his (over) emphasis on grammar. Grammar forms the axis of a language and it is the basis for learning and mastering a tongue. But too much accent on the rules of a language kills its spontaneity.

It is rightly said the grammar is the graveyard of a language. When a child picks up a language during his/her formative years, does he/she learn it grammatically? Yet the child speaks it, following the rules of grammar quite unknowingly. A language is learnt through the ‘immersion process’. One gets into all the facets of a language in a manner that one doesn’t feel that the rules of it are being shoved down one’s throat.

Grammar rules are dry bones of a language. Does a native speaker of a language ever care for ‘verbs’ ‘adverbs’, ‘gerunds’ and ‘infinitive’, among others? Does he ever think whether his sentence is a ‘present continuous’ one? Does the ‘past participle’ or ‘past tense’ of a word mean anything to a person who has been conversing in that language for a pretty long time?

Grammar provides a platform to build the edifice of a language on. It is not the be-all and end-all. You need not teach a person that ‘did’ is followed by a ‘verb’ and not by the ‘past tense’ of it. You automatically learn to say or write: ‘He didn’t come for the movie’ rather than ‘He didn’t came for the movie.’ With the passage of time, the ear gets used to hearing only the (grammatically) correct usage of a language. Its acceptable syntax becomes engrained in the linguistic consciousness of a learner.

Grammar gets shelved as language is for the ears and not for the eyes. What is good to your ears should also be good to others’ ears. Strict adherence to the rules of grammar is like excessive formality in speech and behaviour. It restricts and stifles the flow. “Shakespeare wouldn’t have been so great, had he religiously followed all the rules of English grammar prevalent at that time, despite knowing them like the back of his palm”, wrote the greatest Shakespearean critic Bradley.

If you observe, Shakespeare took linguistic liberty in all his 37 plays and 154 sonnets. The way a perfectly symmetrical face does not appeal to the heart and mind of a beholder, grammatically infallible language also fails to impress at times. Minor errors do not mar a sentence or a piece. And that much deliberate liberty can and should be taken by a writer or speaker.

Moreover, there is no clarity in the grammar of English language as to why many a time, ‘to’ is followed by a ‘gerund’ (-ing), instead of a usual and regular ‘infinitive’. For example, ‘He is prone to putting on weight’ is considered grammatically more correct than ‘He is prone to put on weight.’ The former sentence has a gerund after ‘to’ and the latter has an ‘infinitive’, which sounds more correct. Why should not the more correct-sounding syntax be used?

Yet another example: ‘He is close/near to complete his task’ sounds much more reasonable than the ‘grammatically correct’, ‘He is close/near to completing his task’. Alfred Tennyson wrote: “Time marches on but memories stays/Torturing silently the rest of our days.” The otherwise purist poet intentionally defied the basic rule of grammar and wrote ‘memories stays’, instead of ‘memories stay’ or ‘memory stays’. Even Panini wrote in his Ashtadhyayi (the greatest treatise on Sanskrit grammar) that “Grammar is the skeleton, not the soul of a language.” So do not let grammar bother you too much.

(The writer’s email: sumitmaclean@hotmail.com)

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