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5 Reasons Why English Grammar Is So Difficult

August 12, 2015
Don't let them fool you. Even they struggle with grammar. (image via wikimedia)

Don’t let them fool you. They struggle with grammar just like the rest of us. (image via wikimedia)

English grammar can be tough.  Even people who enjoy reading and writing have a difficult time getting all the rules right.  When I was in college, I got careless with a composition and messed up a bunch of “its” and “it’s.”  My writing instructor admonished me, saying I couldn’t be successful in a writing profession by making basic mistakes.

At the time, I knew the rules, but I also knew I had a tendency to get careless, so I ended up going into a profession that has nothing to do with writing.  It’s my fault I didn’t choose a writing profession.  But almost everybody struggles with grammar, so if I blame grammar for my problems, almost everybody will agree with me.

Below are five perfectly good, rational reasons that explain why English grammar is difficult.  Any errors in grammar are unintentional and not meant to be ironic.

#1- The rules are nitpicky. 

English grammar has some really strict rules.  Don’t split infinitives.  Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Be careful to use “who” as a subject pronoun and “whom” as an object pronoun (I had to look that one up).  A bunch of words sound the same but are spelled differently, or a bunch of words are spelled the same but have different meanings, or a bunch of different words can have the similar meanings but different connotations.  And I haven’t even gotten to verb tenses yet.

Grammar might have been more productive in high school if the focus had been on the basics, like when to say “she and I” instead of “her and me.”  That’s important.  Split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences?  Maybe not as important.  But I’m not an expert.

#2-  People don’t like to get corrected. 

I don’t know if there is a good way to correct grammar, but there are a lot of annoying ways to do it.  I think teachers are taught to answer the question “Can I go to the bathroom?” with “I don’t know, can you?”

When I was a student, this led to many unnecessary classroom confrontations between kids who wanted to leave class and teachers who wanted their students to speak properly.  All a kid had to do was to rephrase the question (usually with an eye roll) as “May I please go to the bathroom?” The “please” was sometimes optional.

But some kids were too stubborn to do that and simply returned to their desks.  Those were the kids who just wanted to hang out in the hallway for a few minutes and didn’t really need to use the facilities.  To me, hanging out in the hallway was worth rephrasing the question, and I threw in the “please” without being prompted.

The good news is that I know the difference between “can” and “may.”  The bad news is that the teachers who did this were so annoying (from our point of view), we probably ignored everything else they tried to teach us for the rest of the class period, such as the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

#3- Most people don’t use correct grammar most of the time. 

A big problem with grammar is that most people don’t use it in their everyday conversations.  We say “ain’t” and “got” and a bunch of phrases that send English teachers to early retirements (but hopefully not early graves).  As a public school student years ago, I worked hard for 45 minutes a day on grammar that I wouldn’t use for the other 16 hours I was awake.

The cool people (or the people who I thought were cool at the time) didn’t speak properly, so there was little incentive to practice outside of school what I was learning in English class.  And that was (and is) a problem.  If people concentrated all the time on speaking correctly, then people would get better at speaking correctly.  But that would take effort, and most people don’t want to put that much effort into something that we think should be effortless.

#4- There are so many exceptions in spelling and pronunciation.

I like rules.  I’m a rule follower and a law abiding citizen.  As much as I like rules, however, I believe the rules should be consistent.  If rules aren’t consistent, then people won’t follow them.  That’s how it works with child-rearing; that’s also how it works with spelling.  The more inconsistencies there are with a rule in spelling/pronunciation, the less likely people are to get it right.

As a kid, I learned the “I before e except after c” rule from a Charlie Brown special on television, but even that rule is inconsistent.  That taught me not to trust any spelling rule, and now I have trust issues in all facets of my life.  Even spell-check is no guarantee that a writer has the correct word.  If a computer can’t figure out if a word in context is spelled correctly, then how can a mere human figure it out?

#5- “Grammar” is not spelled the way it sounds. 

People pronounce the word “grammar” as “gram-mer.”  It’s spelled as if it’s pronounced “gram-marrrrr (like a pirate).”  If grammar is going to have strict rules, it should at least follow basic spelling and pronunciation guidelines.  It’s almost like a politician who writes a law and then exempts politicians (or government officials) from their own rules.  The word “grammar” should not be exempt from its own rules.

And as long as “grammar” is spelled like it is, people will struggle with grammar.


What do you think?  What makes English grammar so difficult?  What rules have you always struggled with.  If you don’t struggle with the rules of grammar, what is your secret?

  1. In a qualified sense it makes sense that grammar is so lopsided and inconsistent. Life is lopsided and inconsistent anyway. A knowledge of text, context and subtext helps , but not ever enough. Rough edges abound.

  2. My mother tongue is Nepali and we have many pronouns. That makes it easy to make and use sentences. In English, I sometimes get stuck at the use of pronouns.

  3. Haha! I enjoyed this 🙂

  4. johnclamans permalink

    I can second what Larry said. Linear texts could never do justice to the diffuse and multiplex way our brains operate cognitively. If there was no possibility of hypotactical writing, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reflect our actual associations and thoughts in the text in a realistic way. Also, if you are forced to write in a linear, consitent way – idea after idea; sentence after sentence – you forget most of your important spontaneous suggestions and associations, since you can’t write it down ASAP, because you gotta finish the current one first. That would be nuts.

  5. CheesyJ permalink

    Haha! “As a public school student years ago, I worked hard for 45 minutes a day on grammar that I wouldn’t use for the other 16 hours I was awake.” So true. Great post!

  6. I can’t remember the rules. There are too many of them. In fact one commenter said something about so many pronouns, and I don’t even know what a pronoun is. I put it down to learning to read in context, and learning young. I can’t spell. I have no idea about grammar. In fact it takes my line editor months to slog through my novels, there are so many grammatical mistakes. LOL

  7. Ha! How heartening to hear a published author is bad at grammar – there’s hope for us all.
    Grammar’s hard, no doubt. I left school with a very poor grasp of it and have spent the last eleven or so years (through studying for a degree, then writing fiction) struggling to learn how to write well.
    It doesn’t help your motivation when you learn, as I did recently, that the only reason people get their knickers in a knot over split infinitves, is because a couple of linguists wanted English to more closely resemble Latin, so carried the rule across and imposed it on generations of students that followed. Rotten swines.
    It’s a mongrel language, which is why our spellings are shot – influences from French, Latin, Norse, Arabic – our history written in our words.

    • I read in a Grammar book (I have several of them in a desperate attempt to learn all the rules.) that our Grammar sucks because we took the rules of one language and interposed it on our own. As the two languages have different origins, they don’t really fit. This is what has led to so many grammatical exceptions.

      • Ooh, interesting. Fits with what I heard about Latin grammar rules being imposed on English. Look at the world of pain they opened up for us all 🙂 My excuse is that I’m of a generation of UK kids who grew up during the 70s and 80s, when educators decided we should throw off the restrictions of our ancestors – all that grammar / syntax / punctuation nonsense – and foster creativity, man. Of course that’s left a lot of middle aged people who don’t know a pronoun from a prefix. Good news for sales of grammar books, though 🙂

  8. I say that there are way too many grammatical rules in order for one adhere to. As long as a writer/ person is getting their point across, well done. Who makes these rules anyways?? Since when did speaking a language become so damn politically correct? Hundreds of years ago, words did not even exist..they were just sounds. If a writer wants to write, don’t let the damn Grammar Nazi stop you/we/us/her/he/I.. !!!!!!!

  9. I always think of the “rules of grammar” more as “suggestions of grammar.” And I like to ignore them as often as possible. Like by starting sentences with “And and “Like.” (And the like.)

    • Some of my English teachers (I forget how many of them) said something like: “When/if you become a best-selling author, then you can break the rules however you want.”

      I don’t think any of them foresaw blogs.

  10. As a non-native speaker, what can I say? I write the way I like. I’m sure my style does not conform to the rules because I like to start my (mostly run on) sentence(s) with: and, because, only, and so fort and so on among so many grammatical errors and mistakes I am not aware about.

  11. Nycke the Poet permalink

    That’s what intimidated me when I was in school and I wish now I’d of studied English and writing in college. If only we could do it again, I know I wouldn’t take it as seriously as I had. At least it’s never too late…at least I hope it’s never too late.

  12. Errors in grammar may also be excused when they make sense.

  13. Rahul permalink

    There are two schools of linguistics – Descriptivist and Prescriptionist. Modern grammar is prescriptionist influenced [therefore, “don’t split infinitives” such prescriptions are there] despite the revival of descriptionist in West. Sanskrit grammar as stayed same in terms of Panini Sutras for more than 3000 years or so because Panini described the language in pithy 3959 one line statements. It is true for classical European languages too. Take my mother tongue – Punjabi – there is of course a basic elementary grammar but there are not prescriptive rules in its grammar. It is descriptive and therefore evolves with time. “Don’t split infinitive” “Don’t put oxford comma” et al are the rules stuck in past. Thanks to prescriptionist take over of English grammar. So many style guides and manuals.

  14. I find the dysfunctional quality of the English language… is what makes the English language beautiful as well as the user skillful. It is like a game to those who use it professionally such as a singer, rapper, poet, song writer and author. To be able to use these words and create a structured product visually but a story mentally and lyrics melodious obviously via hearing. Just writing to write honestly but the only thing I find dysfunctional about language maybe in general is the maybe the lack of effort to learn the complexity. Even slang is interesting!

  15. One of the best articles I have read since a very long time. These are things that I face right now. What we, avid book-readers, is right in every grammatical sense but to explain it is very boring and complicated and is to a large extent, unnecessary.

  16. Great post. I love how complicated English grammar is.

  17. It’s an advantage to speak correctly and sound smarter. You have a winning edge at interviews and meetings over the cool people.

  18. Absolutely right. I find it hard to follow the rules sometimes….

  19. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Many are the readers, writers, and publishers who struggle with grammar…

    Many, too, are the folks who don’t care a hoot about grammar, as long as other folks understand what they’re saying…

    Today’s Re-blog sets out some good reasons to work for “Clarity” and not worry about “Grammar”.

  20. Hidden But Never Forgotten permalink

    This article makes some interesting points.
    I am a twelve-year-old who pays very close attention to grammar and spelling. I am distinguished in the usage of spelling and grammar due to the fact that I was introduced to this topic at a very early age.
    As a student who follows the grammar rules of English thoroughly, I pay close attention to the usage of correct English grammar in everyday language.
    Many people just don’t care about grammar nor think it is important, and it’s sad.
    This is why I think that children should be taught about grammar at a younger age.
    A way to do this, the way I learned, is for the parents to turn on the captions on the TV. It really does improve their spelling and grammar.

    Older students who struggle with grammar and spelling, I understand. Especially is English is not your first language.
    Research states that English is one of the hardest languages to learn due to its grammar and its misleading concepts.
    Such as the fact that there is a difference between every day and everyday, it’s and its, you’re and your, there, their, and they’re, etc.
    Also, the rules that abide plural singular words. Sometimes, a word can be used in both singular and plural cases without adding anything onto it, such as deer.
    Other times, you have to add ~s, ~es, or ~ves depending on the letter the word ends in.
    There are even some words that just don’t follow any of these rules. Such as more than one mouse is mice and more than one tooth is teeth. Weird, huh?

    In all reality, I haven’t even covered 1/10 of the abundance of the English grammar rules. There is a vast amount of exceptions, as well, that makes learning English a painstaking task.

    Grammar is an important function for everyday life, regardless of the language.

    • Tiffany permalink

      Actually, I do care about grammar and I do think it’s important! It’s not that I’m disinterested, it’s the simple fact that the rules themselves are inconsistent and there’s too many heated debates over the proper usage. Too many times the mentality targeted towards someone less versed in the English script, gets treated as a neanderthal; stupid, bored, disinterested. I even got corrected once in a stupid chat room despite my best efforts. Needless to say, it makes a lousy incentive.

      The simple fact is, is that we’re not making efforts to throw away most of the rules and truly revitalize the laws of English to make it fluid, consistent and easier. I laugh when I learned that Shakespeare himself, was inconsistent in spelling his own name. Maybe there’s hope yet?

  21. Hidden But Never Forgotten permalink

    I just realized that in my previous post, I made a grammar mistake myself (-_-;)
    See? These rules can slip right away from us sometimes. But, everybody makes mistakes sometimes.
    That is my conclusion.

  22. Anonymous permalink


  23. well I was on here helping my poor husband with editing his assignment. He writes as he speaks and I was trying to explain the difference between “as” and “has”! when I came across this that sent him and me into conniptions! I spent an hour looking up meanings of these grammatical words that I definitely do not remember from my English teacher!
    has – ‘used with a past participle to form the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses, and the conditional mood.’

  24. And yes my grammar leaves a lot to be desired! Apologies to all.

  25. Anonymous permalink

    who is the authos of this post?

  26. Tiffany permalink

    It feels so good to read this; now I don’t feel so ashamed about my writing. I love to write stories but I find the grammar rules to be so inconsistent. When I tried to educate myself online what the proper usage, the site itself admitted that the rules are inconsistent and you had to ‘Stick to your style’ SCREW IT!
    And I admit, the snotty attitude of teachers and Grammar Nazis (Nazi’s? Nazis’?) alike, don’t help; being treated as stupid for struggling with all the ‘bylaws’ of English dosen’t exactly entice me to learn. English is very much a mongrel language.

  27. I think it’s also fair to state that a writer can check, recheck, and re-recheck their own writing and still miss something, no matter how carefully they read the material. I will post a blog I’m certain has been proofed to death, only to read it after publication and catch at least three errors I missed. I would never pick out someone else’s mistakes unless asked. If I do a book review on a poorly edited book, I just simply state that an editor/proofreader would have made the material much easier to read. I’ve learned to overlook those errors to the actual meat of the material, though. Great post. Dawn

  28. kingston permalink

    i like it but i have a doubt, Is there is any problems faced by a student while teaching a literary text

  29. I learned how to read and write Arabic as a native English speaker and honestly, the rules are so much simpler and easier to understand than English.

  30. Dorathy permalink

    This really enlightened me the more about reasons why it’s so difficult to learn English grammar

  31. Frank permalink

    I agree only thing holding me up from nursing school did well at every thing else. Except grammer.

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