Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grammar. Who needs it?

That was a rhetorical question. Because we all need it.

I don’t remember learning much grammar at school. A verb was a Doing Word, a noun was a Naming Word, there was something about Subjects and Objects, and the rest is kind of a blank. My point is, if you want to write professionally, you need to understand grammar instinctively. You need to be able to look at a sentence, see the problem and fix it. You might not be able to say that the problem is the dangling participle, but you should be able to see that it doesn’t read as well as it could. Please note that I’m using the dangling participle as an example only. I often leave participles dangling. See?

I studied Old and Middle English at university. And boy, was that a shock! Suddenly I had to know what dative and genitive were. I’d never even come across these terms before, but those old Anglo-Saxons had whole damn word endings based on them. And don’t ask me now what they are. I jettisoned that part of my brain at graduation.

I also studied French at uni. I know, sucker for punishment, right? I learned how to conjugate French verbs, when I don’t ever remember doing the same for English verbs. I go. You go. He goes. She goes. They go. And that’s just in present tense. I don’t remember the French now, but my ability to conjugate the verb “to go” in English is unparalleled. And then you get to tense, and things get complicated. What the hell is future pluperfect anyway, and why should I care?

They don’t teach grammar much any more, and while part of me thinks that’s a real shame, part of me acknowledges that that we should all be grateful. The best way to learn grammar, after all, is through use. Read a lot. Write a lot. Make it work.  Break as many rules as you like, as long as you know you’re doing it.

The most memorable thing I’ve ever read about grammar can be found in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.
The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.
Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later aditions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.
To resume:
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the history of catering.
It is built on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined planet which is (wioll haven be) enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe.
This is, many would say, impossible.
In it, guests take (willan on-take) their places at table and eat (willan on-eat) sumptous meals while watching (willing watchen) the whole of creation explode around them.
This, many would say, is equally impossible.
You can arrive (mayan arrivan on-when) for any sitting you like without prior (late fore-when) reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were, when you return to your own time (you can have on-book haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrohome).
This is, many would not insist, absolutely impossible.
At the restaurant you can meet and dine with (mayan meetan con with dinan on when) a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time.
This, it can be explained patiently, is also impossible.
You can visit it as many times as you like (mayan on-visit re-onvisiting... and so on - for further tense correction consult Dr. Streetmentioner's book) and be sure of never meeting yourself, because of the embarrassment this usually causes.


  1. Great post, Jen. Couldn't agree more.

  2. My husband is a high school English teacher and struggles with teaching grammar. Not because he doesn't know grammar, but because his students hate grammar. We talk about it all the time, because at 15 years old, they have a hard time caring about what an Appositive is or how knowing what a Gerund is will ever help them. And something interesting about this generation of kids (or maybe we were all like this) is that they need to see that what they are learning is important, maybe more so because the demographic of kids he teaches do not tend to value college so much as leaving school and working full time.

    He wants his students to understand grammar without getting hung up on what things are called. It's interesting because they know a correct sentence from an incorrect one, but the moment they are told to pick out the indefinite article they freeze up and shut down.

  3. It's like algebra, geometry and calculus. At the time they were important but I have yet to ever need to be able to identify "THIS is a dangling particle" on a job. It's a matter of oh hey your sentence could be better, tweak, voila happy boss.

    Some things are okay to forget like the names, so long as the skills underneath are intact. I still enjoy comma splicing for the hell of it.

  4. SM,
    I had to look up what comma splicing is...and I do it as well. All the time! Love it! I didn't realise there was a term for it, apart from "bad grammar".

  5. Sommer Leigh,

    I feel the same about indefinite articles...I'm stuffed if I can remember what they are. I don't know what the US education system is like, but it's been a long time since there was any emphasis at all on grammar in Australia. And I'm still in two minds about it. I think for people who are interested in writing or languages it would be great to have the opportunity to study some grammar at school, but, for those who aren't interested, it would only make them hate English. Like me and Maths!

    My sister is a high school English teacher, and it's scary some of the things her kids don't how to pick the verb in a sentence. I think the problem is a lot of them don't really read much, which is probably a topic for another day!

  6. Heh, Douglas Adams rocks. I don't remember anything about English grammar from school, but I do remember Latin and French quite a bit, which oddly enough helps. I think I'm just a natural grammar geek :)

  7. Girl Friday,
    See, that's my problem with learning a foreign language...there are all these rules you suddenly have to know, that were never taught to you when you learned English. And we use those same rules, just without knowing it! It would certainly make learning a foreign language easier if we still learned English grammar. And I'm not a grammar geek obviously, but I would like to be! I'm an etymology geek though.

  8. What a great entry lol. I loved Douglas Adams and struggle with grammar. As I get to typing, I go so fast that my sentences usually end up verbose and filled with grammar mistakes.

    Just wanted to say that Stranger in a Strange Land is still one of my favorite books. "Grok" was such an interesting term and I guess became quite popular in the sixties as the term caught on within the culture of the time period. It's wonderful to see you reading it and hope you are enjoying it.

  9. Thanks, Michael! I'm reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" because it was so ground-breaking. Liking it so far - very interesting, and I will eventually get around to posting a short and inadequate review!



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