Why you should drop that grammar book right now
Abby Weng, English Coach & Consultant
Recently, I discovered an amazing board game called Agricola. I have to admit that it was really overwhelming just to look at all the pieces in the box — there were hundreds of cards and little tokens of various shapes.
Instinctively, when we receive a new board game like this, we reach for the instructions to get a basic understanding of how everything works, and that’s exactly what I did.
But the interesting question is: what do we do after that brief overview?
In spite of not fully understanding the game upon my first glimpse of the manual, I put it aside and started setting up all the pieces on the board.
It would be insane to keep reading about each and every rule in the hope of mastering the game.
Every child knows that PLAYING is the only way you can get better at a game once you’ve learned the basics
It is the same way with learning English; once you’ve learned the basics of grammar, you can’t keep burying your nose in grammar books. If you’re an intermediate to advanced English learner, you simply have to put them away and engage with life instead.
Agricola appears to be impossible to understand at first glance, but once you start playing and learning along the way, you’ll begin to get the hang of this beautifully designed game!
The complexity is still there, as it always will be, but the difference is that YOU can now engage with this new world
Source: Review of Agricola Revised Edition
While you may think that studying the manuals thoroughly will help you, they can actually hurt you at this point because they are:
At some point, nearly every English learner tries to build vocabulary by reading the dictionary
Inevitably, this person gives up (most likely — while still on the letter ‘A’). You smile as you read this, maybe because you’ve been through the same thing, or because you recognize the madness in the method without even attempting it.
What most learners don’t realize is this:
Reading a grammar book is exactly the same as reading a dictionary
Both of these books, like the encyclopedia, are designed as reference tools. This means their purpose is to hold as much information as possible — in fact, in an ideal world, they would be able to contain ALL the information that exists in this world.
The wealth of knowledge is perfect if we want to look up something, but it’s awful as learning material
More is not always better
In learning, as in eating, if we consume too much, we end up with indigestion. The sheer amount of information can easily overwhelm us and paralyze our learning.
In the best case scenario, we simply stare at all that we can absorb and stop dead in our tracks
In the worst case scenario, we get lost in the maze, become confused and conclude that we are hopeless at learning the language even though it’s really the method that is hopeless.
Still unconvinced that a reference book isn’t the right tool for learning?
Just try looking up a simple word in the dictionary. You will quickly discover that the easier and more common a word is, the more complicated the entry. The word “set” alone generates 6 definitions as an adjective, 15 as a noun and 16 as a verb!
Do you really need to know each and every one of these 37 definitions before you can use the word “set”?
Of course not. Imagine having to learn them all by heart, and that’s just one word. Now imagine doing that for every single word there is in English. How can you even spare a second to begin using the language at all? You can drown in the definitions of just one simple word!
The same is true for grammar: You can get overwhelmed by the explanation of just one simple rule
To add salt to the injury, you probably know the rule already. Based on my experience, 80% of the time, English learners do not suffer from the problem of ignorance.
They struggle because they do not get enough practice in real life
And they do not practice enough in their lives because they are fearful of being wrong, so they buy more grammar books in hopes of understanding everything perfectly first.
Except they fail because they are distracted by irrelevance
Due to the mammoth amount of information these reference books contain, they are particularly good at distracting learners with obscure rules and leading them to create awkward sentences that few people use in a real-life setting.
Even though most learners should be gaining more experience and drilling basic skills such as subject-verb agreement and simple tenses, they get easily tempted by the complication of grammar books. In their mind, fluency has become a race to acquire ever more difficult rules, and that’s simply not the case.
Some of humanity’s most beautiful expressions are also the simplest.
Then there is the big issue of being misled too
So often, I see learners fixate on certain words from grammar books that state if they see X, then they need to use Y or if there is X, then Y is impossible.
Unfortunately, they fail to understand that the rules are rarely black and white; such relationships may only apply to certain cases, but the learners are not yet familiar enough with the language to figure this out. They end up applying the rules across the board, even to areas that are totally irrelevant.
This is not just the failure of learning something useful, it’s the active sabotage of their existing knowledge!
Even if everything in a grammar book were somehow relevant, the gap between the rules and their application still exists
Just knowing the rules doesn’t guarantee that you can apply them, and when it comes to language, it’s ALL about whether you can use what you know or not.
As a matter of fact, when we actually start using English, we’ll find that in certain situations, people just don’t follow the rules very well, and we need to be flexible enough to deal with that.
It might interest you to know that even experts disagree on the rules
Beyond the basics, there is too much dispute about minor issues that have little impact on the messages we wish to convey or receive. One book may teach one thing while another may teach a different variation, and in many cases, the rules evolve over time so we do need to dwell on the petty details or grow too attached to the rules.
Moreover, grammar books can also provide impractical practice
Working on grammar books gives learners the false sense that they are making progress in the language, when they are just accumulating more knowledge about the rules.
Some books do include exercises, but even those provide only a very limited amount of practice in the form of multiple choices or even fill-in-the-blanks.
To be fair, grammar books have to limit the scope of their practice exercises for the sake of sanity
If they provided too much freedom, they would not be able to supply a standardized answer key, and people would complain. However, the fact that they can supply an answer key is also proof that the problem sets are very poor imitations of real-life situations, which seldom come with a single, standardized answer.
In short, intermediate to advanced English learners should stop studying grammar books
Instead, they should keep those reference tools nearby for the times when they truly need to look up some information. Using grammar books to improve our English can easily backfire on us because the content is so overwhelming, irrelevant and impractical.
But I feel lost if I don’t have some sort of guidance!
Trust me: if you are not a beginner (and you definitely aren’t if you’re reading this without the help of translation technology), you probably already know most of what you need to know in terms of English grammar.
Mastery comes from practice, not the consumption of yet more knowledge. The need for structure is understandable, but grammar books are not the only solution offering guidance.
If guidance is what you need at the moment to take your English to the next level, then you should definitely consider joining my online community: English Ever After. I created this platform to help intermediate to advanced learners like you break free from conventional classrooms, textbooks, and flashcards. Come and learn English with us so that you can finally bring the language to life and into your life!