How to Develop an Ear for Grammar

What with all the rules and exceptions to the rules they are ohliged to memorize in school, students may fail to learn grammar’s most fundamental rule: you can usually hear the difference. For instance, every student can pronounce the word subject. But what ahout the verb, as opposed to the noun’? He can pronounce that, too, for he knows that the verb subJECT sounds different from the noun SUBject. The same difference distinguishes the verb susPECT from the noun SUSpect, and the verb obJECT from the noun OBject, The difference is one of stress. In the noun forms, the stress, or accent, falls on the first syllable; in the verb forms, the emphasis is on the second syllable.

Having learned that the difference in sound between the verb and noun forms of these words is one of stress, the student can use this knowledge to avoid the misspellings that might otherwise result when he adds -ed or -ing to a two syllable verb. What is the difference in sound between the verbs "refer, occur, and concur" and the verbs "suffer, offer, and conquer?" In the verbs "refer, occur, and concur," the accent falls on the second syllable. In the verbs "suffer, offer, and conquer," the stress falls on the first syllable. Two-syllable verbs with the accent on the second syllable double their last consonant before adding -ed or -ing; two-syllable verbs with the accent on the first syllable do not. The student who can hear the difference will spell better.

By hearing the difference in sound, the student can also know when to double the final consonant before adding -ed or -ing to a single-syllable verb. What is the difference in sound between the verbs "mat, pet, pit, hop. and pun" and the verbs "mate, seat, bide, hope and prune?" The verbs "mat, pet, pit. hop, and pun" all contain short vowels. The verbs "mate, seat, bide, hope, and prune" all contain long vowels. (The vowels pronounced while reciting the alphabet are long vowels: A, E, I, 0, U.) One syllable verbs with short vowels double the final consonant before adding -ed, or -ing; one syllable verbs with long vowels do not. The student who hears the difference spells correctly.

An ear for grammar can also help the student in punctuation. For instance, if you were asked, "Would you like coffee or tea?" You would logically answer "yes" or "no." If you were asked, "Would you like coffee, or tea’?" You would instead indicated your preference. That little comma after the word coffee in the second question - corresponding to the pause taken in speech - is charged with meaning.

Perplexing as it may be, punctuation is not a question purely of personal preference. Commas are signals, not ornaments. Learn to hear the difference in sound made by the position of accents, the quality of vowels, and the placement of punctuation, and you’ll discover that grammar, this set of seemingly arbitrary rules, is just a matter of common sense.