All language consists of words – spoken or written – which we use to communicate with other people. Grammar is the structure of that language: the way it’s used, and the conventions that help us to understand what is meant from the context. We learn most of our grammar as toddlers when we learn to speak, so if you speak correctly, it’s likely that your children will too, without ever having been taught formally.
Small children seem to have an intuitive grasp of language structure. This is why they sometimes make mistakes, assuming general principles that are not always true. If you hear a child talk about ‘two mouses’, for instance, he is not repeating something he has heard; he has understood the concept that we add the sound ‘-es’ to a word ending in a ‘s’ sound, to create a plural. If he says, ‘the two mouses runned away’, you know he has also understood that to create a past tense we usually add the ending ‘-ed’ to a verb.
It’s probably obvious that there’s no need to ‘correct’ a child who uses unconventional (though logical) forms like these. He will gradually learn the various exceptions to general principles as he grows up, so long as you continue to model correct grammar. Many parents would say something like, ‘Yes, the two mice ran away!’ This gives the correct forms of the words, while agreeing with the content of what the child has said. That’s how most language is learned.
Why study grammar?
If it’s intuitive, and mostly learned in the toddler or pre-school years, what’s the point of learning about parts of speech and grammar in general?
Firstly, it can help us in writing if we know how our language is correctly used. Conversation tends to be casual, but when we write letters, or job applications, or articles, it’s important to know correct grammar if we are not to appear ignorant. For instance, the phrase ‘could have‘ is often pronounced ‘could’ve‘ when we’re talking. Unfortunately, people who don’t understand grammatical forms sometimes write or type it as ‘could of‘, which sounds the same but is incorrect. Spell-checkers don’t help with this kind of mistake, nor with the differences between ‘your‘ and ‘you’re‘ or ‘its‘ and ‘it’s‘. While avid readers are likely to know these things without ever learning them, many do not.
Secondly, if you learn a foreign language when you’re a teenager or adult, the grammar is likely to work differently. If you learn a second language as a small child, you will understand this intuitively, as with a first language. But by the time we get to eight or nine, our brains have become somewhat hard-wired as far as language goes, and it’s more difficult to learn a new one. So it becomes important to see how the grammatical structure of a new language works – and unless we understand at least the basics of English grammar first, that’s almost impossible.
Thirdly, in my opinion, it’s often quite interesting to study grammar, so long as you don’t treat it as a chore.
Playing with grammar
The basic grammar page gives an outline of parts of speech, and the links below explain most of them in detail, with plenty of examples. It’s not always easy to categorise words; yet every word in the English language fits into one of the eight principle parts of speech. If your children enjoy structured learning with, you could try making word cards of different colours, or highlighting phrases on paper with different coloured pens, depending on the parts of speech. It’s best to begin with simple phrases, eg Jack and Jill went up the hill.
Let’s make the verb red. Where is the verb? That’s the thing that describes what happens. It’s the word ‘went‘. Let’s make the nouns brown. Where are the nouns? There are two people and one object: Jack and Jill are proper nouns, hill is an ordinary noun. What words are left? And, up and the. ‘and’ is a conjunction, joining Jack with Jill in the sentence, ‘the’ is an article, so it’s an adjective, and ‘up’ is a preposition. If we make conjunctions green, adjectives pink and prepositions purple, the sentence will read: Jack and Jill went up the hill.
If you repeat this kind of thing occasionally for fun, or when your children ask about words, grammar won’t seem like a tedious thing to study but may become a fascinating puzzle to work out. Not everyone will find it interesting, but if your child does, it’s a useful start to linguistics, modern languages or classics study. It can also help in categorising and logical thinking.
For further information on some specific parts of speech, see:
Nouns – the different forms of nouns explained, with plenty of examples
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices of verbs
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adjectives – what adjectives are, how to use them, comparative and superlative forms
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them
You might also like to read the page on basic punctuation in English writing.