Grammar and Worship

Some teachers feel such annoyance over one simple question: “Why do we have to know this?”  Typically, the student asks this question in the middle of a complex math lesson, and the teacher’s response can range from annoyance to amusement.  However, the math teacher is not the only one in the building subjected to this age-old query.  The English teacher working through a complex grammar lesson might find himself also targeted with this seemingly foolproof line.  The student knows he will never be standing in a grocery store line and asked what three parts of speech a dependent clause can function as. The math teacher appears to have a leg up at this point, for he can refer to various STEM fields and careers and tell his students they will need to understand this material if they want to move higher and deeper in the necessary math for their dream job; however, the English teacher must be honest that plenty of great writers would be unable to answer the dependent clause question–even plenty of successful English teachers.  So why grammar?  My goal in this paper is to answer this question.  The audience I have in mind is first students, but also parents, administrators, and fellow English teachers.  “Why” questions can be annoying, but they are foundational to being human, and they are a great opportunity for a teacher to earn students’ buy-in.

Why?  Because It Is Beautiful
If a teacher cannot genuinely give this answer about his subject matter, he does not belong on the staff of a classical school.  This has to be primary.  When I start my grammar bootcamp every fall with my juniors, I start with motivation rather than grammar content, and I make sure I dive into this answer first.  We need students who can appreciate a good sentence just like we need students who can appreciate a good painting or aria or sunset.  We need worshipers, and worship starts with submitting to something or Someone.  When we grammatically analyze a sentence, we try to discover what is already there; we do not import some reality of our own crafting.  Our grammatical framework or method might be of our own crafting, but it is merely a tool to see and speak of the structured reality of the sentence.  Look at the following diagram of the last sentence of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address:”

One need only look briefly at the outline to see its layered complexity–to see the final sentence of this great speech is dramatic and grasping and building up to a climax (like a firework show’s grand finale), and that that grand finale focuses on “the people” in a flurry of prepositional parallelism.  One does not need the sentence diagram to hear this flurry–any decent reader will make this parallelism leap into the audience’s ears–but the knowledge of the grammar further gives access to the sentence’s and sentiment’s beauty.

Why?  Because It Is Divine and Human
Grammar centers on a subject–someone or something the speaker is talking about–and a predicate–something said about that subject.  Together these form a thought.  But not everything in the universe thinks, so when we say the core of grammar centers around the core of human thought, we are in deep waters.  We are in waters leading us to see our identity as divine-image bearers.  Andrew Kern puts it this way:

We think all the time. We can't not think. But there is a form to thought that we humans did not make up but that was given to us. It is an expression of the Divine Image in man. The same Logos whose glory is declared by the heavens and whose handiwork is revealed all over the earth, inhabits language and the mind. That is why we can know the world we live in. And the means is grammar.

When we commit to teaching our students grammatical analysis skills, we are teaching them a “means” of knowing “the world we live in”--a world inhabited by the divine Logos.  Grammar is centered on “a form to thought that we humans did not make up but that was given to us.”  I mentioned earlier that worship begins with submission, receiving, an acknowledgement of the “given-ness” of things.  The dividing line between the subject and the predicate in a diagram is a confrontation with a thinking God who made thinking creatures in his own image–a God who reveals himself through subjects and predicates.

Why?  Because Eloquent and Clear Style Is Vital and Does Not Just Happen
If the only thing a class takes away from close grammar study is a conviction that good sentences do not just always naturally happen–that they are constructed–then all the instructional and practice time would have been worth it.  If a student starts to play with her sentences in future papers–bending them and reordering them and changing clause types and sentence openers and modifier placement–as a result of looking at language through a grammatical lens, then the teacher has given her a great gift.  Certain exercises can help with this as well.  Have students take one thought and say it in a variety of grammatical ways.  Or, control the experience by giving the students certain grammatical “recipes” by which to express the thought.  For example, tell students they have to express the thought using an introductory adverbial clause and a compound action verb in the main clause.  Give them varying recipes like this, all centered on expressing the same thought.  Get their brains working this way.  Another valuable exercise can be sentence modeling/copying.  Take a great sentence from the class’s current reading and make students copy it one chunk at a time.  Help them break up the chunks according to the grammatical structure of the sentence.  As they say each chunk out loud and write it down (in their best handwriting), they are acting out–over and over–the composition of the sentence, the way it works.
But is “good style” even a thing?  Isn’t this subjective and quite prescriptive?  Doesn’t language change?  Well, we must be careful.  Good style may come in different forms, but it remains good style, utilizing and drawing out what is best in our language’s potential and tradition.  Joseph Epstein introduced a new edition of F.L. Lucas’s Style, and in it he quotes Lucas as writing, “On the quality of a nation’s language depends to some extent the quality of its life and thought; and on the quality of its life and thought the quality of its language”  (qtd. in Epstein).  Epstein continues, “Lucas concludes Style by emphasizing the need to keep English ‘plain yet rich, simple yet subtle, graceful yet strong.’”  This touches on a vital point for English teachers to believe with sober motivation: We partly need to teach students the skills of grammar so that they can appreciate what is great about English, so they can “preserve the heritage of English” and give a foundation for the “quality of [the nation’s] life and thought.”  These are big goals, but I do not think they are overstated.

Lucas is partly right because good grammar works according to a certain logic, and if that grammar is abandoned, so too is the logic.  Mark Bauerlein makes this point in his review of Gwynne’s Grammar:

If grammar is not just a set of arbitrary conventions, but has a logic to it, then we certainly have the authority to correct improper usage and divide right from wrong practices. When we hear a double negative (“I can’t get no-oh . . . satisfaction”), we may rate it worse than a departure from Standard English. It is nonsense. To do so isn’t to impose one culture upon another. Rather, as Gwynne says of himself, it is to assume “the authority of being a conscientious conveyor of what can be shown to be true.” Proper usage possesses a logical order and traditional acceptance that improper ones don’t.

So to teach grammar in a way that props up proper usage in turn props up “logical order” itself.  Again, this is no small thing.

Why?  Because Grammar Helps Us Enjoy an Author’s Artistic Vision
This answer is somewhat implied by my previous answers, but I want to give a separate section of examples where the grammar of a sentence is clearly part of the author’s conscious artistic expression and thus vital for confronting/experiencing the author’s vision.  As an example, look at the last sentence in Ch. 7 of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Gatsby’s dream with Daisy has shattered in the day’s events, and yet the narrator Nick still leaves him keeping vigil outside Daisy’s dark house): “So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight–watching over nothing.”  Fitzgerald has spun a simple sentence (it is literally simple as it contains only one clause), but its grammar sings in harmony with the book’s pathos at this point.  Notice the compound predicate–”I walked away and left him standing.”  The compound predicate structure highlights the contrast between Nick who is moving on and Gatsby who is still stuck standing.  The following participles–“standing” and “watching” are also parallel and thus draw attention to their content which sums up Gatsby’s life.  He is “standing…in the moonlight….”  The moonlight has been key in the text.  A younger Gatsby would fall asleep at night in his teen years, haunted and intrigued by the moonlight in his squalid room, a moonlight that corresponded to the fancies of his rampant imagination.  Here he is towards the end of the book still “standing in the moonlight.”  But Fitzgerald follows this with “watching over nothing.”  He is in the moonlight, but it is all over nothing.  Nick has just told us he caught a glimpse of Daisy through the window, and she is clearly moving on with her husband Tom, plotting their next move together.  Gatsby is keeping vigil over a non-existent fancy of his own creation.  It all amounts to “nothing.”  And Fitzgerald has structured his sentence so that “nothing” gets the last word in this fateful chapter.  The simple grammar is the vehicle by which Fitzgerald delivers these artistic touches.  Simple, but powerful.  This is the stuff of great art.

My next example comes from Faulkner’s story “The Old People.”  At this point in the story the narrator (a boy at the time) is with his hunting mentor (Sam) as they watch a giant Buck come towards them.  The passage is a mystical one as the buck has just been shot (the “dead buck” at the end of the quote), and this seems to be its spirit, but it is not the normal spirit, for it is casting a shadow with real muscles.  Sam eventually greets it as “Grandfather” with a Native American greeting.  It is the climactic moment of the story, a story centered on our connection to the wilderness and those who have gone before us.  Here is the passage:

Then [the buck] saw them.  And still it did not begin to run.  It just stopped for an instant, taller than any man, looking at them; then its muscles suppled, gathered.  It did not even alter its course, not fleeing, not even running, just moving with that winged and effortless ease with which deer move, passing within twenty feet of them, its head high and the eye not proud and not haughty but just full and wild and unafraid, and Sam standing beside the boy now, his right arm raised at full length, palm-outward, speaking in that tongue which the boy had learned from listening to him and Joe Baker in the blacksmith-shop, while up the ridge Walter Ewell’s horn was still blowing them in to a dead buck. 

A knowledge of grammar opens up this passage’s reader to a veritable feast.  The passage begins with shorter, simple sentences and independent clauses.  The deer sees Sam and the boy.  It is a quick and shocking moment of recognition.  The punchy, quick feel of the sentences is fitting.  But then the main sentence of the passage (beginning with “It did not even alter its course…”) is ninety-eight words long and only contains one main/independent clause.  It includes a couple adjective clauses and a final adverbial clause, but the nearly one hundred word sentence is carried by verbals–mostly participles–modifying the deer first and then Sam.  This is brilliant because  Sam and the wilderness have been equated in the grammar of multiple sentences throughout the story, for his union with nature and–by extension–with his ancestors is the core theme of the story.  The grammar is not a disconnected vehicle conveying this theme; it becomes a world to experience the theme.  The scene’s intensity is felt by the relative lack of main verbs and clauses for a sentence so long.  An avalanche of verbals instead does the trick and leaves the reader at the end hungry for a breath–as I’m sure Sam and the narrator also are.  The final temporal adverbial clause gives us the contemporaneous event: Walter Ewell is announcing his kill of the very buck that has transfixed Sam and the boy and us with its thriving pride and vitality for the last eighty-two words.  The collision is jarring and enlightening.  This is the marriage of form and content.  This is the joy and mystery of language.

Wrestling with the grammar of an author’s sentence can also give us a look into their personal style, and when students start hearing how Hemingway sounds different than Fitzgerald who sounds different than Hawthorne who sounds different than Wolfe—well, such students will feel like they are developing acquaintances with real men and women with real voices, voices recognizable like an old friend’s.  I could tell students that Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling sentences felt like they were reaching down into me and plucking on my heart when I was their age.  I could tell them this truth, but they might not feel anything I felt.  They might not know how a sentence’s sprawling length could do that.  But let them quickly observe a diagram of a typical Thomas Wolfe sentence (taken from the first page of his Look Homeward, Angel!), and the sprawling, grasping claw of Wolfe’s voice literally becomes visible:

It is technically a simple sentence with only one subject/predicate set: “He wandered…”  The rest rambles and burrows and delves; one might even say the rest wanders.  This is what I mean by grammar’s ability to tie us to an author’s artistic approach and vision.  This is a great gift, worth the teacher and students’ assiduous grammatical labor.

This paper has gone on long enough, but it could go longer.  Notice I have not even touched on the typical reasons grammar training gets taught when it is taught at all: learning how to punctuate well, learning how to speak and write in a standard English that helps one appear credible and educated and hireable, learning how to ace the SAT English section.  Some of these reasons are valid, of course, but I have focused on the deeper reasons–grammar’s beauty, its divine roots, its service of eloquent and clear style, and its power to help a reader more fully engage and enjoy an author’s work and self.  These are the reasons more apt to lead us to worship, the chief end of grammar.

Freeing the Mind Through Grammar

After 30 years of exclusively undergraduate teaching, I am enjoying the new experience of working with Masters students in the Classical Education program. I admire the grit of these hard-working teachers who are committing time and energy to pour themselves into a demanding program for the sake of perfecting their ability to educate their students better. They are serious about learning as much as they can, which makes teaching them a delight and a challenge. The more questions they ask, the more I need to deepen my  own understanding and ability to express what I think is important.

During last summer’s Trivium course, one student insistently pressed a question about grammar –  why devote so much time to grammar when we speak and write well intuitively and by imitation, practices fostered especially by reading good literature? I have since found that many teachers of English do not believe that grammar should be taught as a subject in its own right. We learn the rules of grammar instinctively, not by training. Formal grammar is difficult to teach; sentence diagramming, the crowning exercise of grammar class, is hated by most students. Grammar provides no measurable help in learning to write, which only progresses through practice. The 1985 rejection of the National Council of Teachers of English is often used to justify the rejection of grammar:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.

I am personally grateful that this resolution had not yet been passed when I was receiving my parochial school education. I learned sufficient grammar to diagram sentences, and learning diagramming perfect my understanding of grammar. I’ll admit that diagramming did not help in teaching me to write, but then I don’t recall ever really being taught the craft of writing in school. I was told to write, but that was by high school teachers who were more focused on teaching about the research process than about writing effectively. When I did finally need to learn to write, I found that my detailed grammatical knowledge helped to learn from and apply quickly the lessons taught in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. As a college teacher, I have to read and comment on many student papers. I can’t imagine trying to help students who struggle with writing if I couldn’t presuppose that they understood grammatical terms like “fragmentary sentence”, “subordinate clause”, “prepositional phrase”, and “parallel construction”.

But formal grammar did not develop for the sake of teaching writing or even for teaching foreign languages. It developed because it reveals the elements and structure of language, one of the astounding creations of the human mind and the mind’s most intimate too. JRR Tolkien wrote of the intimate connection between mind and language:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.  The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass.  But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective:  no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent.   

A  NCTE 2002 position paper (seemingly at odds with the much more frequently cited 1985 resolution) agrees:
As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity. Some Questions About Grammar

Though I didn’t put it to myself this way at the time, learning that sentences had an intelligible order, one that I could recognize and master, gave me some confidence that I lived in an ordered, intelligible world, in a world to be discovered. This was a little island of stability in the unsettling world of complete relativism.

It also made me realize that clarity and precision was not simply the province of mathematics. John Henry Cardinal Newman believed that a chief goal of all education is “to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks about, what it thinks about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, define, and reason, correctly.”

In his 19th century world, mastery of grammar, particularly Latin and Greek grammar, was the essential requirement for entering university. The college entrance examination (an oral affair) aimed to ascertain whether he knows Etymology and Syntax, the two principal departments of the science of language,—whether he understands how the separate portions of a sentence hang together, how they form a whole, how each has its own place in the government of it, what are the peculiarities of construction or the idiomatic expressions in it proper to the language in which it is written, what is the precise meaning of its terms, and what the history of their formation.

Newman had little hope for the well-read youth of inaccurate mind who detested the demands of careful grammatical accounting. But he also felt pity for them, believing that often they had been allowed to linger in an immature state by their educators.

Because of the intimate connection between thought and language, and because of the powerful formative influence that training in grammatical analysis and synthesis provides, grammar was traditionally considered one of the essential liberating arts, and one of the most necessary accomplishments of the educated person. It also prepares the young to pursue wisdom through close careful reading of the great works of philosophy, sacred texts, and theology.

Because of its abstract, reflexive character, grammar is not the easiest subject to teach, and is rarely successful with all students. Yet much the same could be said for subjects such as algebra and chemistry. One teacher of writing respected in homeschool circles apologized to her former students for forcing them to learn diagramming, something she enjoyed herself but they hated, and which she determined to be practically useless. But as Andrew Pudewa, founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing says:

Competence should be the goal, not affinity. When we try to teach solely by enthusiasm and encouragement, we are in danger of failing in our teaching and failing our students. However, if we try to teach toward competency, we get students whose experience then translates to confidence—a confidence much more meaningful than that prompted by the cheerleading of a parent or coach.

Parents and public decision makers who, aroused by the blatant use of publicly-funded schools for radical social indoctrination, are looking for serious change, they must face a burning question: “We know what we don’t want, but what should we do?” How shall they choose a school for their children, or a curriculum for their community’s children? Look at the literature, look at the libraries, but also look to see if grammar and diagramming have a privileged place.