It seems that the pattern of the Trinity permeates creation: body, mind, soul; harmony, melody, rhythm; truth, goodness, beauty; ethos, pathos, logos. The illustrations could continue. Therefore it should not surprise us that the thing called “grammar” can also be understood in three parts—integrated and organically connected but in three aspects, which when understood individually, strengthen our understanding of the whole.

I first began thinking about the question of grammar more than ten years ago, when I met a professional author—a man who had for decades earned his daily bread by writing. We were working together on a project, and he mentioned to me, somewhat casually, “I don’t know any grammar.” Though he was being candid, I was surprised and even confused. How was it that a professional writer didn’t know much grammar? And the obvious extrapolation was this: if it’s not necessary to know grammar to write well, why do we pile year after year of grammar workbooks on our children? Are we missing something here?

Around that same time, I came to realize a very interesting thing about people and writing skills: there’s a clear correlation between confidence and ability as an adult, how much the person was read to (out loud) as a child, and how much poetry and/or Scripture he or she had memorized. Writing ability in later life is almost always directly connected with how much language has entered the brain through the ear in early life. This caused me to formulate some basic principles of nurturing competent communicators, which I have explained in another article, “One Myth and Two Truths,” available on our website.

However, I continued to contemplate the idea of grammar. What is it? How do we learn it? Is it important? These questions led me to formulate a tripartite view of grammar, which I am happy to share with you now, especially as we head into convention season, when many curriculum choices are made. So let me propose that there are three aspects of the grammar of a language: inherent (or inherited) grammar, applied grammar, and formal (or analytical) grammar.

Inherent grammar is by far the most important to good writing and in a way the easiest to teach. This is our language as we know it. If I say to you, “Me go to the store,” you know this is wrong. You may not know exactly why, nor could you explain why it’s wrong, but you know it is incorrect because of the database of correct English you carry around in your brain. Generally it is “inherited” from our parents, which underscores the extreme importance of correct language in the environment (and the perilous consequences of a deficient or incorrect language environment). If we speak and write correctly, it’s probably not because we studied years of grammar; it’s probably because we heard our parents and teachers speaking correctly and reading good books to us during our early years. This creates our database of language patterns and forms our inherent or instinctive grammar. We know right expression from wrong expression because we subconsciously and instantaneously compare it against the database of correct language stored in the brain.

The next aspect of grammar we often encounter is what I would call applied grammar. This is the grammar we use to fix stuff. We hear, “Me go to the store,” and we know it’s wrong, and we know how to fix it: “I will go to the store.” Again, we don’t know why it’s wrong or how we fixed it; we just know that one is wrong and the other is correct. This aspect of grammar knowledge develops in tandem with inherent grammar and can be practiced intentionally with various editing skills programs.

The third aspect of the thing called grammar is what might be called formal or analytical grammar. This consists of knowing “what those things are called” and “what are the rules governing their behavior.” This is the type of grammar practice we often find in grammar or language arts workbooks. And what’s so ironic is that this is the least relevant (and therefore hardest to teach) part of grammar, at least to a native speaker of the language.