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Of Milton and Manual Transmissions – In Defense of Grammar

November 16th, 2017

{photo by Pexels}

Last week we shared a fun video tutorial for those teaching grammar at home in grades 1-4, using First Language Lessons. This week Grammar is back, but we're highlighting the other end of the grammar spectrum – high school grammar! Read on to hear from our high school English teacher, Paul McCullough, as he shares why grammar is part of our SLOCA High School curriculum, and what it looks like at that level:

People often say, “I don’t need to study English grammar—I already speak it!” And they have a point. Words are vehicles, conveying meaning from one mind to another. I don’t need to study the intricacies of fluid dynamics in order to drive to the grocery store, and I don’t need to know the difference between a direct object and a predicate nominative in order to get my point across in this sentence. As with my 2012 Chevy Volt, knowing how to drive the vehicle and knowing how the vehicle works are two separate realms of knowledge.

Yet ideally, a free, well-educated person will have an abundance of both kinds at his or her disposal. To be educated is simply to take things everybody uses but doesn’t fully understand—language, first and foremost—and more fully understand them so that they might be put to new and better use. If my Chevy breaks down, it’d be nice to know the difference between a carburetor and a connecting rod. The alternative, as Henry David Thoreau foresaw, is to become “tools of our tools.” Ask yourself, who is really using the computer: the person who spends every afternoon on Facebook, or the person who is writing the code?

Classical pedagogy holds that every subject of study—engines, computers, oil painting, algebra, viticulture, you name it—has a particular grammar: a structure, morphology, set of rules and internal relations that govern it. Mastery of any body of knowledge begins with its grammar. With mastery comes a great freedom—the freedom to think for oneself that is the aim of a classical liberal arts education. At SLOCA, then, we study English grammar not as an end in itself—and certainly not to become grammar snobs whom can correctly distinguish between the nominative and objective cases (did you catch the pretentious case error there?). We study grammar in order to become true thinkers, to expand the range of our creative freedom.

It is particularly important to master English grammar, for English, unlike my trusty Chevy, is constantly breaking down. When language breaks down, thinking breaks down, for grammar is the engine of thought. The engine, of course, does not decide where you go. But it does determine how far you can go. Reading Milton, Melville, Shakespeare, and Henry James, we encounter great minds thinking great thoughts—thoughts that take us further into realms of knowing and feeling than we could have otherwise imagined. These realms are frequently, though certainly not always, difficult to access without some grounding in grammar.

{photo from Houghton Library at Harvard University, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons}

Once in class, while parsing a particularly dense Miltonic sentence from Paradise Lost, a sentence in which the subject and verb are inverted and delayed until the sixth line of its galloping iambic pentameter, a high school junior who has always had a way with words raised her hand: “I think I just felt my brain get bigger. I couldn’t see it before; I do now.”

This sentiment may not be entirely a figure of speech. There is considerable neuro-scientific evidence confirming my student’s intuition that complex sentences open up new realms of thinking by syntactically fusing concepts stored in the brain’s left and right hemispheres. For a succinct summary of this research, I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab episode on “Words” from NPR. Evidently, a group of scientists have taught rats to identify certain basic concepts—right, left, blue, white, and so forth—by rewarding them with food in a maze. However, what the rats can’t do is put any two of these concepts together into a sentence. So a rat can “learn” the color concept of blue and the spatial concept of left. But the rat can’t put those concepts together to learn “food is to the left of the blue wall.” Linking concepts like left and blue and food is the work of syntax, that combinatory function which allows our human brains to generate a theoretically infinite variety of complex thoughts about the world. Without syntax, it’s hard to say that what goes on in a rat’s brain rises quite to the level of thought. It turns out that homo sapiens’ unique ability to put together subordinate clauses—“When I give you the signal, charge toward the herd with your spear”—was a key factor in our unprecedented planetary dominance long before becoming part of ninth-grade English.

One insight to draw here—hardly new, but well worth hammering home—is that studying language takes us near to the heart of what makes us human. Expanding our grammatical abilities serves to both enrich one’s inner world and enlarge one’s conception of the world beyond one’s head.

If this still sounds too abstract, take a look at what happens when the Radiolab journalists Krulwich and Abumrad ask Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro about The Bard’s justly famous verbal amalgamations:

ROBERT KRULWICH: He made up unreal?

JAMES SHAPIRO: He was the first to use it in print or on stage.

JAD ABUMRAD: Would an audience at the time have understood what the “un” prefix meant, “not real”?

JAMES SHAPIRO: I think it takes you a split second. Uuuunnnnnrrrrrreeeeaaaaallll… To kind of put that “un” on the “real.”

ROBERT KRULWICH: But then suddenly you got this new concept that there's something real, but not.

JAMES SHAPIRO: He’s taking words that ordinarily are not stuck together; things like madcap, ladybird. Shoving them together, eye drops, to achieve a kind of atomic power. Eyesore, eyeball.

JAD ABUMRAD: He did eyeball?


ROBERT KRULWICH: It’s hard to understand how someone could think of, that up, it seems like it’s always been there.

Poetry is sometimes defined as “serious play,” and this doesn’t seem too far off from what Shakespeare is doing here. But there is also the notion that “Poetry adds to our stock of available reality,” as R.P. Blackmur once put it. Science now gives us reason to think that grammar does as well.

To sum up, I’d like to highlight the three main reasons grammar is part of our SLOCAHS curriculum while laying out in a practical manner what the study of grammar looks like in our high school program.

We study grammar because it is 1) Classical, 2) Useful, and 3) Truthful.

1) Grammar Is Classical

In order to savor pleasure of a well-balanced sentence, we must begin at the beginning, studying nouns and verbs, subjects and objects. Because it is neither possible nor desirable to teach students everything there is to know about a subject, it is often best to teach them the fundamentals; that way they have the tools to follow through on their own, whether that is reading Milton or their car’s instruction manual. Further, studying English or Latin grammar helps students pick up on the structures and patterns in other areas of the arts and sciences, like chemistry and music, enhancing their sense of the unity and beauty of all knowledge. This is the “teach them to fish” aspect of classical education.

Many modern schools have thrown out their grammar workbooks in favor of more quote-unquote useful and interesting subjects (see #2 below). The result of this great grammar omission in the American system has been that many recent high school graduates feel anxious and overwhelmed by the prospect of reading and writing in the Real World, at an adult level. (I know I did.) They are right to feel unprepared. Their native tongue has become a black box. By contrast, SLOCA teaches grammar in grades 1-12, beginning, obviously, in the Grammar Stage of the Trivium, and continuing through their senior year of high school, the Rhetoric Stage, wherein they hone this knowledge by putting it to use writing winsome and persuasive essays, poems, and stories.

Which brings us to…

2) Grammar Is Useful

Despite years of doomsaying by various techno-utopians, writing does not seem to be going away any time soon. Ask just about any card-carrying adult: writing is not optional. Most of us write every day of our working lives—oh, the blessing and curse of email! It’s certainly possible to pick up the basics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation by simple osmosis. But at SLOCAHS you have someone (your generous, intelligent, humble English teacher) who is willing to sit down with you and show you the proper rules and why they exist—what you might call the So what? factor. That way, nothing will hold your thoughts back from the page, and you can write write write in college and beyond with great confidence, without having to stop and consult the rules. You already know them; they are merely your vehicle for thinking on the page. Once you have ascended the grammar ladder, you don’t need it anymore; you are free to kick away the ladder.

In high school, I start students at the bottom of the ladder, from the beginning, assuming no prior grammar knowledge on their part. We lay our foundation freshman year by learning Parts of Speech, Sentence Elements, and Punctuation. (No one should be allowed to leave freshman year without learning, say, how to use a semi-colon, that most hopeful of punctuation marks; this idea is not conclusion; an independent clause stands beyond…) As sophomores and juniors they master a rigorous Common Errors curriculum that covers Case, Agreement, Modifier, Parallelism, Wordiness, and so forth. Because we are a great books school, we learn our errors alongside E.B. White’s classic guide Elements of Style (with the hilariously deadpan Maira Kalman illustrations). The very last rule we learn is that these the rules of language aren’t like rules of math. These are rules you can break at will—but only if you know what you’re doing—for the sake of style.

One final note on usefulness: my juniors report that studying these Common Errors gives them a decided advantage on the SAT verbal section, which is designed to test—you guessed it—your knowledge of correct English usage.

3) Grammar Is Truthful

Imagine you are adopting a dog from the local shelter. An adorable puppy catches your eye, and you inquire about him further. Compare the following two responses from the shelter worker:

Response A: “He’s a little crazy, but we really like him.”

Response B: “We really like him, but he’s a little crazy.”

The words themselves are identical, and yet the two statements point to opposite conclusions about this quirky puppy that nudge you toward quite different courses of action. The difference here is a product of grammatical syntax—word order—which most native speakers are naturally attuned to.

In our Orwellian times, such clarity of speech becomes a moral imperative. Words can put us in right relation with reality, or they can obscure those relations for nefarious purposes. We honor statements that portray reality rightly by calling them true. There are many kinds of truth out there (I myself have strong philosophical allegiances to the more ancient notion of truth as aletheia—unforgetting), but one way of thinking about truth is as language that fits reality; truth is something we predicate of the world. It is a thoroughly linguistic phenomenon.

For this reason, the ancients took the study of words seriously, and we moderns would do well to do the same. “To speak poorly… does some harm to the soul,” Socrates suggests in the Phaedo. It doesn’t take a philosopher to look around and see what he means.

Augustine of Hippo picks up where Socrates leaves off when he asserts that Truth has a sister, and her name is Beauty. This summer I re-read Somerset Maugham’s the The Razor’s Edge, which portrays a life of unexpected beauty discovered in the ardent pursuit of truth. When the protagonist confides to a friend that he has been studying Greek grammar in order to read Homer, his friend demurs: “It doesn’t sound very practical.”

To which our protagonist responds: “Perhaps it isn’t and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it’s enormous fun. You can’t imagine what a thrill it is to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you had only to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hands to touch the stars.”

But only if you’re willing to climb the proverbial ladder of grammar to get there.


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