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What your English teacher never told you - Stop worrying about grammar!

Ottobre 2015
Ansia da present perfect? Il genitivo sassone vi dà gli incubi? Rilassatevi. La perfezione grammaticale non è così importante in inglese, e gli errori non sono percepiti come segno di ignoranza. La cosa che conta davvero? Esprimersi in modo chiaro e conciso.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

A lot of Italians worry too much about English grammar. The problem probably goes back to their infancy, when they had to spend hours analysing complicated grammatical structures in their own language. Then, once they started learning English, their teacher probably began with the grammar rules. The result is that Italian and other students of English often suffer from what is known in the English-teaching world as “Grammar Anxiety.”


The truth is that, while Italians are agonizing over whether or not they should use a past simple or a present perfect, most British or American people probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
British kids never have to do complex grammatical and logical analysis exercises at elementary or middle school. Once we’ve learned what adjectives, verbs and nouns are, the fact that you write the personal pronoun “I” with a capital and maybe a few articles and adverbs for the more gifted students, that’s pretty much all we think we need to know. They don’t tackle the really sophisticated grammar until high school, or more probably university – if they decide to study linguistics, for example.


Kids from the English-speaking world spend a lot more time on spelling, learning how to be convincing when speaking or writing, and on producing ideas – for example, they do a lot of creative writing. Clarity of communication is prized far more than perfect grammar.
Consider the fact that there are differences between British and American grammar. You have probably learned that “already” and “yet” usually go with the present perfect, as in “I’ve already opened my birthday presents,” “Have you opened your birthday cards yet?” In American English it’s perfectly OK to use the past simple here: ‘I did that already,” “Did you do that, yet?” Obviously, British people are so used to hearing American English on TV, that they accept both forms.  


Of course it’s very important to study grammar if you want to express yourself with any kind of sophistication. However, it’s important to understand that grammar errors have different connotations in Italy. People who make mistakes are considered to be intellectually inferior. This is not the case in English-speaking countries. There are many types of English and so we are much more flexible. Social and intellectual level are more often communicated by accent, the ability to communicate difficult concepts in a clear and understandable way, and the ability to say something original.


Too many Italians lose points in international English exams, because they continue to correct themselves and are so worried about getting the grammar right that they speak too slowly. This slow speech can make them boringly monotone, so they lose marks for fluency and intonation.


The importance of clear communication is also true in writing. 11-year-old British kids don’t spend hours on grammar, but they do spend a lot of time practising good paragraphs, so that their writing is well-structured and easy to understand.
And this is the key point: the reason you study grammar should be to make your English more comprehensible. Your aim is to express meaning correctly and unambiguously, not to score points by constructing a particularly long and complex sentence without mistakes.


So the next time you’re speaking in English, especially in an exam-type situation, avoid the slow speech and frequent self-correction that comes with grammar anxiety. Concentrate instead on being communicative. If you think you haven’t been clear, try saying the sentence again in a different way, of illustrating your point with an example. Clarity is the key and nobody will think you’re stupid if you make the odd mistake.
To put your mind at rest here are a few examples of grammar anxieties you don’t need to have:

Anxiety: I shouldn’t use verbs such as “like” and “love” in the present continuous, should I?
Reality: Americans do, and it’s become fashionable slang in the UK. Consider the McDonalds slogan “I’m loving it.” These days, it’s quite normal for a young British person to say “I’m liking your new hairstyle.”

Anxiety: When do I use “whom” instead of “who”?
Reality: Very few English mother tongues know or care, so don’t worry about it!

Anxiety: Isn’t it more correct to say “If he were here...” rather than “If he was here...?”
Reality: Technically yes, but very few English speakers bother with this rule, so don’t lose sleep over it!

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