Grammar and bicycles

Why is grammar like a bicycle chain?

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Ever wonder what grammar and bicycles have in common? More than you’d imagine.

  • Think of language as a bicycle chain, with the different aspects of grammar representing links in the chain.
  • The more you lube your chain, the smoother your ride will be and the faster you will go. The same applies to grammar.

The more you “grease” your grammar, the easier it will be for words to roll off your tongue.

Why is grammar so important?

People often complain that English is such a difficult language to learn because there are so many rules. Just when you think you’ve mastered a  vexing concept, you discover the inevitable exception to the rule – and the rule about the exception to that rule.

However, despite the complexities of English grammar, “knowing” grammar is important. Language is creative. It enables us to use words in an innumerable number of ways to say an innumerable number of things. What is it that makes this possible? It is grammar  –  the strict and seemingly obscure rules that control the way we put words together.

What is the best way to learn grammar?

To master a language, it is important to strike a balance between the fun parts and the less sexy rule-driven aspects.  Arguably, the way we learn grammar affects how we feel about it and how good we become at it.

Attitudes towards the teaching of grammar are in constant flux. They influence the way it is taught in schools around the world.  For instance, some years ago, grammar completely dropped off the school curricular in many countries. During this time,  the powers that be actively discouraged teachers from teaching grammar and advised them instead to integrate it into their teaching practices.

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The grammarphobes might have breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, if you are a rules person, like me, you would have floundered.

If you happened to learn English, or any other language, for that matter, through the filter of a less structured language teaching approach, you might be able to tell your friend that “the monkey is in the tree” or “le singe est dans l’abre” but may not know the names of the grammatical components or parts of speech that make up the sentence. (Read

Ironically, it was only when I learnt other languages, following different learning approaches for each, that things started to fall into place for me in English, my own mother tongue.

In our German classes, we followed the  communicative language teaching approach.  It was communication on speed, with little active learning of grammar. The fact that I have an almost zero retention rate speaks volumes for its success. Ich habe vergessen alles was ich gelernt habe.

For French, things were different. At school, university and beyond, we  focused actively on learning French grammar, and not simply on absorbing it through a process of osmosis in the hope that something would stick. So before being able to read the classics, dance with Gautier, despair with Camus, cry with Racine, we first learnt the rules. And the rules definitely did stick.


My Eureka moment came towards the end of university. It was only then that I realised that I was not only able to name the grammatical structures I had been learning about in French, but was also able to transfer my knowledge of them back to English.

So, for instance, by learning about and being able to name the plus que parfait in French, I was able to draw parallels with the plus perfect tense in English and thereby fully get to grips with it. A rather round-about way of mastering English grammar, n’est pas?

The good news is …

Fortunately, grammar is finding its way back into school curricular – so go out and cheer and swing from the rafters. This is indeed a very good thing.

We have all observed how children intuitively learn language without being taught the rules. In time, they can eventually work out for themselves when they have made an error, again without being taught. So why bother about learning grammar, you may ask?

Knowing grammar gives us infinitely more power. It is the mechanism which makes it possible to talk about language.

Grammar and confidence

Let’s return to the bicycle analogy. While you may be able to sit on your saddle and power up hills like Superwoman, you may have little technical knowledge of bikes. For instance, you hear a grinding noise coming from your back wheel.  The rear derailleur, part of a variable-ratio transmission system, is bent, making it impossible for the chain to move from one sprocket to another. Your bike mechanic advises you to replace your derailleur. But when he mentions terms such as cranks and drive chains, cable pull through ratios and mashups, you stand there with a mouth full of teeth.

If the above terms are gobbledygook to you, the same applies to someone speaking a language with a sketchy grasp of grammar. To become a proficient cyclist, you need to get to grips with the mechanisms that make the wheels turn around. With language, you need sufficient knowledge of the basics to be able to use written and spoken English confidently.


Proofreading: Heather Thorne