Grammar Matters Even More Than You Think


You probably hear it all the time from your parents: you need to learn grammar. Not only is it one of the key components of the SAT and the ACT, but it also makes you sound smarter and convey ideas better. What you may not realize, however, is that understanding grammar can help you in ways that go beyond the obvious. For one, it can help you break down poetry--a common villain in high school English classes.

When you think of poetry, you might have visions in your head of overly sentimental words being said by a guy to a girl. Or maybe you think of old language being used in ways that seem utterly incomprehensible. Poetry creates a reading experience unlike that of any other kind of writing, but it doesn’t have to be avoided.

In novels, essays, biographies, and most other kinds of texts, information is written in prose, the ordinary language of speech and writing. Prose’s main purpose is to convey meaning in the most basic way. Poetry, however, transforms the everyday use of language into something artful; communication is not the primary goal, but, rather, an artful use of language. For example, look at these two statements:

Prose language:

Without a home or any food, the dog walked down the street.

Poetic language:

Without a home or any

food, the dog

walked down

the street.

Do you see a difference between the two sentences?

They both are conveying the same idea, but the poetic sentence adds something else to the experience. Language is not only showing that the dog is walking down a street. It is using rhythm and sound in interesting ways.

So where exactly does the grammar come in?

Look at Line 2—“food, the dog”— and see how meaning is created where it did not exist before, all because we have simply isolated these words to stand as their own line. We cannot get this meaning without understanding a little grammar, so let’s briefly dissect:

In this case, you need to be familiar with the grammar concept appositive, which is any part of a sentence that essentially renames or defines a noun. For example, you could say:

Mrs. Baker, our math teacher, does stuff.

The appositive is “our math teacher” because it defines Mrs. Baker.

Now let’s look back to the poem version of our dog sentence and look at Line 2:

food, the dog

We know that the full sentence is just about a dog walking in an alleyway without any food or home. Yet stretching the words to rest on separate lines opens the door for new meanings that can coexist with the full sentence’s meaning.

And? Well, there's a new idea—the dog itself is food.

Wait, what?

You are allowed to say that one meaning from the poem is that the speaker suggests the dog itself is food because of how Line 2 emphasizes the relationship between dog and food by using the appositive format. Understanding grammar in this case provides a whole new layer of meaning to the poem, and since the poem itself is pretty subtle, you may have completely missed this relationship if you lacked a strong grammar background.

What are the implications of this idea for the whole poem? That’s for you, the reader, (see the appositive!) to decide. Perhaps the poem is suggesting that those who lack shelter and food become the very things they lack—for others. (Poor doggy, you don’t have any food—well, that’s great for me, the hungry wolf. Chomp!)

Look at all that meaning we got from the poetic version of this sentence, meaning that would have been totally lost had we not broken the sentence into lines. It’s amazing! We didn’t have to add a single new word. We just had to know how appositive phrases work and how these phrases can add meaning to a sentence and a poem.

So you see, grammar matters in ways that you probably didn’t expect. Poems become a whole heck of a lot easier to read and break down, and well, of course the SAT and ACT are more manageable too, not to mention your essays and, well, the list goes on and on.

If you are looking to boost your grammar expertise, consider taking one of our elementary or middle school enrichment classes, or if you want to brush up on your skills, consider taking 1-1 tutoring for the concepts just in time for the October SAT and PSAT. While you may not be breaking down poems soon--although, English 1 students, look out!--you surely will want to keep a positive attitude about appositives.

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