“Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” — author Joan Didion.
Some people take lessons to learn to play the piano, and some gifted musicians play by ear; they hear a tune and replicate the sounds.
My philosophy on learning grammar parallels learning to play music by ear; we learn what “sounds right,” whether it is the spoken or written word. Sounding right is the foundation for our communication skills and style.
Consider how children acquire language. Do we hand them a grammar book in infancy and say, “Here you go! Memorize the rules, apply them, and then I’ll be able to understand you.”
Of course not. Those who study linguistics believe that the human brain is programmed to acquire language, but they acknowledge that it’s difficult to say how much nature versus nurture accounts for language development.
Anyone who has spent time with a young child knows that little ones mirror what they hear. If they grow up in a Japanese household, they learn to speak Japanese; if they mature in Sweden, they speak Swedish.
In the United States, we have regional accents that affect speech. And we have varying levels of understanding about what comprises Standard American English — the way educated people speak and write — plus differences in what age groups, educational levels or professional circles consider standard.
Because I believe effective communication is vital for positive personal and professional relationships — not to mention career success — I offer regular grammar tips via my blog. I hope that seeing (and saying either aloud or in your head) what is considered standard usage of words and punctuation will enable you use English in a way that helps you achieve your life goals.
I reported on a real-life example of this by-ear principle of learning in an August 2014 blog: Reading Good Stuff Translates to Writing, Speaking Well
Successful author Joan Didion adds,
“All I know about grammar is its power.”
Seize the power!