How to learn grammar

This page contains lots of advice on how to learn English grammar.


Grammar is an aspect of language about which learners have different opinions. Some learners are very interested in finding out or learning grammar rules and doing lots of grammar exercises. Others hate grammar and think it is the most boring part of learning a new language.

Whatever opinion you have, however, you cannot escape from grammar. It is in every sentence you read or write, speak or hear. Grammar is simply the word for the rules that people follow when they use a language. We need those rules in the same way as we need the rules in a game.

If there are no rules, or if everybody follows their own rules, the game would soon break down. It's the same with language. Without rules we would not be able to communicate clearly and efficiently with other people.

The rules of language are in fact a little different from the rules of a game such as chess. For one thing, there is a very limited number of rules in chess, whereas language has many thousands of 'rules'.

A further difference is that chess has clear prohibitions. For example, you cannot move the king into check. If you do so, then the game cannot continue. If you break a language rule (such as: You cannot place an object between the subject and the verb → 'I dogs like.'), your interlocutor will probably understand you and the conversation will continue.

Some language rules are strict (such as the word order rule exemplified above), while others are much looser and have many exceptions (such as the word order rule stating that opinion adjectives come before size adjectives before colour adjectives, meaning that Little Red Riding Hood conforms to the rule but Big Bad Wolf doesn't).

Still other rules are simply the opinions of people who object to certain usages that have become widespread (for example, they object to Who did you go to the dance with?, claiming that it should be Whom did you go to the dance with?. Or better still, With whom did you go to the dance?

What is the best way to learn grammar?

So you cannot escape from grammar, but the key question here is: what is the best way to learn grammar? You can learn the rules of a game by simply playing the game. You will certainly make mistakes; you may even get hurt. Eventually, however, you will know how to play.

Of course, the rules of a language are very much more complicated than the rules of any game, but in fact this is exactly how you learned your own language. @ Nobody taught you the rules of your mother tongue as you were growing up. But now you know more about the grammar of your language than in all the grammar books. ~

Learning a second language the natural way

It is possible to learn a second language in the same natural way, if you have enough time and you live in the right place. For example, if you are a Korean boy and you move to Russia at age 6, attend a Russian school, play every day with Russian friends, you will probably learn all you need to know about Russian grammar by the age of 15 without ever having a grammar lesson or reading a grammar book.

Other ways to learn a new language

Most people learning a new language do not have so much time and such an ideal situation. So what IS the best way to learn English grammar if you are not in that ideal situation?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question. @@ There are just as many different opinions about teaching grammar as there are about learning grammar. ~~

Many teachers believe in the importance of grammar lessons devoted to a study of language rules and lots of practice exercises. Other teachers feel that grammar is best learned by doing different language activities without focussing so directly on the rules.

Whatever your opinion about grammar, and whichever is the way you are taught, here is some advice that may help you to learn grammar more effectively.

Some advice on how to learn grammar

  • Be aware of grammar. Think about grammar. Notice the aspects of English grammar that are the same as or very similar to those in your language. The use of the articles in German, for example, is similar to their use in English.

    Notice also the way that English expresses an idea differently than how it is done in your language. For example, English uses the present perfect to express a period of time that started in the past and continues in the present (e.g. I have had this watch for 10 years).

    Many other languages use the present tense to express the same idea; (e.g. German: Ich habe diese Uhr seit 10 Jahren.) If you notice grammar similarities and differences, you will probably learn the rules more quickly.

  • @@@ Read a lot of English books. This may sound strange. But in fact all the time you are reading English (and also listening to English), you are taking in models of correct grammar that will help you in your own writing and speaking. ~~~

    It will help you when you express your ideas and when you come to check your work. Of course, it is even better if you can read with the grammatical awareness discussed in the previous section.

    By this I mean that you say to yourself from time to time: Ah, so that's how you do this in English!

  • Concentrate on the aspects of grammar you personally find most difficult. Particularly in your writing you can focus on these aspects for special care and attention when editing your work. Of course, it is more difficult in speaking. But even here you can sometimes take a fraction more time to try and get that particular element right.

    For example, if you are retelling a story in the present tense, you could keep reminding yourself that you need an -s in the 3rd person singular: she says, he doesn't, etc.

    Note: If you don't have any idea what aspects of English grammar cause you most problems, ask your teacher or a native speaker friend.

  • Learn the common irregular verbs. If you can use these verbs automatically, it will give you more time to concentrate on other aspects of what you want to say. They are easy to learn if you say them to yourself many times. [ Irregular verb list ]

Doing grammar exercises

If you don't like to do grammar exercises or to be taught grammar, then it's more important that you follow the advice in the paragraphs above. You should try to work out the patterns and rules of the language for yourself.

If you do like to do grammar exercises, then go ahead. But being good at grammar exercises does not mean you will not make mistakes in your own work. You could be like someone who has learned how to play tennis by reading a book, but once he is on the tennis court, he can't hit the ball properly.

If you decide to do grammar exercises, try to go beyond just filling in gaps or doing multi-choice answers. Write out some sentences of your own that follow the same rule that you are practising.

Here you can read more about learning grammar by doing quizzes

Information for advanced grammar enthusiasts

If you are very interested in grammar, there is a computer program called a concordancer which can help you learn about how words are used and how grammar works. When you type words into the concordancer, it shows you hundreds examples of those words in short sentence extracts.

For example, if you want to learn more about how the present perfect continuous is used, you can type in the words I have been and the computer will give you a list of extracts from books or newspapers containing those words:

  • I have been waiting for two months for a letter from my pen-friend.
  • I have been living in Germany for 3 years.
  • I have been learning English since 1999.
  • I have been social distancing from my cat.

If you study these examples you can more easily work out for yourself the grammar rule about using the present perfect continuous tense.

There is a simple concordancer on this site.

Resources for learning grammar

There are thousands of grammar information and grammar quiz sites on the web. Here is a short list of recommended grammar sites.

The page Language learning online elsewhere on this site has many examples of how you can use Google and other online resources to learn grammar.

Go to this site's grammar quizzes .

There are more quiz questions in the numerous pages of the Is English an easy language? section in the drop-down menu of the The English Language index.

Further sources of information

There are suggestions about where else you can learn about grammar and ask an expert your grammar questions on the final thoughts about grammar page.

That page has a link to a cartoon in which ESL student JM learns the sad lesson that grammar is not the most important thing about learning a new language.