English Grammar and Social Class
With grammar, as with everything else in life: there are choices to be made. A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois. On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.
Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?
Learning a foreign language
Redundancy and entropy
"I stopped there yesterday." Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence. The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past. The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday, make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.
"He is here." The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant. "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.
When the message matters, the grammar matters
Grammar can change the messageAs I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar. However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar. Consider these pairs of sentences:
1. The less people know about us the better.
2. The fewer people know about us the better.
In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.
In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."
1. I'm going to see her tomorrow.
2. I'll see her tomorrow.
In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.
In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.
1. I've seen that movie.
2. I saw that movie.
In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").
In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)
Who needs English grammar?Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them. I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least. At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).
My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar. Teachers of English need to know the grammar. I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.