Over 300 years ago, there were no English grammars in England. Was it because at that time the English language had no grammar or Englishmen spoke without following any grammatical rules? No, that was not the case. Any language of course has rules to go by. All people speak a language according to a set of generally accepted rules, for otherwise their speech would be all topsy-turvy and unintelligible. We ought to know, however, that grammar, rather than something arbitrarily created, is a system drawn from common linguistic usage. Speech comes first, then the written language, and then the grammar book. Over 300 years ago, some scholars in England, realizing the necessity for an English grammar, began to work on it on the model of Latin grammar, borrowing heavily from its terminology. In Shakespeare's time, nobody in England studied English grammar. What they studied was Latin grammar. Middle schools then were known as“grammar schools”, the word“grammar”referring to“Latin grammar”instead of“English grammar”, a term then non-existent. As English was largely a northern language, the forced application of Latin grammar to its analysis ended inevitably in inadequacies and frequent exceptions to rules.
A living language changes all the time. Its word meanings, sentence structures, etc. all keep changing. Phrases and sentences which we today think ungrammatical were often in common use 2–3 centuries ago. It might take only 3–5 decades rather than 2–3 centuries for a marked linguistic change to occur. Therefore, it is very difficult to speak“standard English.”Each historical period has a different standard of its own. It will be much ado about nothing to judge of modern English by its grammar of 50 or even 100 years ago.
People of our country tend to overstress the importance of grammar when they begin to study English, thinking that once they have acquired a good knowledge of grammar, they will have thoroughly mastered the language. The method they pursue is outdated though not a hundred percent wrong. The new method is by learning directly from the living speech instead of by starting with the rigid and abstract theory of grammar. When people learn to speak in childhood, they never study any grammar. And yet they learn to speak in but a year or so. Of course it is much more difficult with the study of a foreign language. But the same reason holds good. The proper method is by learning naturally.
The above-mentioned shallow view is common knowledge. Therefore our school syllabus has explicitly ruled out the teaching of grammar in the classroom as an independent subject. But, fact is, as far as I know, many schools are still teaching a grammar book and students are still buried in its study — partly because people are generally inert and reluctant to accept new ideas, and partly because, having failed to teach or learn successfully, they hastily seek help from grammar at the last moment, regarding it as a shortcut to mastering English.
Nevertheless, we still have to mind our grammar. Sentence structure is of great importance. For instance, the English sentence I have a book and its Chinese equivalent Wo you yi ben shu（我有一本书） are practically the same in structure, and hence can be learned without too much difficulty. On the other hand, the English sentence Where do you live? is different in structure from its Chinese equivalent Ni zhu zai na li?（你住在哪里？）, and hence needs repeated drilling till you get used to it. It requires a thorough study to find out where the two languages differ grammatically so as to facilitate the teaching and learning of English. The mechanical memorizing of such grammatical details as“classification of adjectives”,“classification of clauses”, etc. will achieve little result despite great effort.