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August 22, 2009
The Secret to Perfect Grammar: Learning vs. Memorizing

Grammar is awful. It’s boring. It’s technical. It’s confusing.

But if you want to command the English language, you must master it. So, what are your options?

Learning proper grammar and memorizing proper grammar are different activities. The goal for each task, however, is the same: remember how to use language appropriately.

Since I don’t want to be boring, technical, and confusing, let’s remove the topic of grammar from our discussion for a moment. The following two sections illustrate learning a piece of information in contrast to memorizing a piece of information.

Which action is going to be more effective?


Picture yourself watching a mindless reality television show, such as Bravo Television’s Top Chef (certainly one of my own guilty pleasures). In the Quickfire Challenge, the contestants are required to make an amuse-bouche. Although you are not familiar with culinary terminology and you do not know French, you quickly realize that an amuse-bouche is a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre—an appetizer-like, little dish to “amuse the mouth”.

Through the context of the entertaining show, you have learned a new phrase that you will recognize in the future. You internalized information from a seemingly inconsequential source.


Bill is at a wine bar on Saturday night. After conversing with Lisa, he asks for her telephone number. This transaction used to involve finding a pen and something that roughly resembles paper, a napkin perhaps. The more 21st century-style of this exchange simply involves entering digits into a cellular phone. Pleased that Lisa has agreed to his request, Bill creates a new “contact” in his spiffy mobile device.

“No,” Lisa stops Bill. “You’ll have to memorize it. I don’t want you to enter it in your Blackberry or write it down at all.” Bill agrees to the challenge and confidently repeats the ten-digit number a few times aloud. Lisa proceeds to talk about her cat Nibbles for an hour and then leaves the bar after she realizes how late in the evening it has become.

When Bill leaves the bar, he has forgotten Lisa’s phone number. He was distracted by everything that she said subsequent to stating the digits and felt pressure to memorize the sequence of numbers. Bill was overwhelmed by the information and unable to seamlessly incorporate the contact number into his psyche.

Grammar rules are easily forgotten when you approach memorizing them in the manner in which Bill attempted to memorize Lisa’s telephone number.

When you learn proper grammar within a meaningful context, choosing incorrect language becomes as unfeasible as mistaking an apple for an orange (assuming that you are familiar with fruit).

In my upcoming ebook, Revision Fairy Tales: 21 Writing Mistakes You’ll Never Make Again, I provide word usage rules that make learning grammar more comparable to acquiring new knowledge from a reality television show, rather than memorizing a phone number in a loud, crowded bar.

In my next article, I will preview some of the functional grammar lessons featured in the ebook.

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Stefanie Flaxman corrects business, marketing, and educational documents in 24 hours. She’s a writing consultant and the founder of Revision Fairy® Small Business Proofreading Services. Check out her free report and subscribe to Small Business Writing Consultant Blog to get free business writing advice. Don’t forget to say hello on Twitter!

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