Grammaphobia

Learned Vol. 4, Issue 12

This week:  We’re starting a new chapter by taking a look at grammar. It’ll be fine, I promise. We’ve got the usual footnotes and then a little bit of trivia. Let’s dive in.

If the greatest joy in life is telling your former math teacher that you have never once needed to know the quadratic equation, then the exact opposite is acknowledging that all the grammar your teachers tried to pound into your stubborn little head is something you use every day.  And by you, of course, I mean me.

Grammar is weird for me.  On the one hand, I don't take any great pride in being able to diagram a sentence.  Truthfully, I'm sure I would get it wrong as often as I'd get it right.  And most of the time, it doesn't really matter.  On the other hand, as a writer, grammar is everything.  Without it, sentences fall apart and words drift aimlessly through the page, leaving the reader without any clear indication of who did what to whom, nor when, nor why, nor where.  And yet...

So, let's talk about grammar for just a minute.  As I teach it, grammar is the scaffolding from which communication is built.  And this particular image is important to me because a more common metaphor is that of the foundation.  Grammar is the foundation upon which language is built.  But, think about this:  if a building's foundation is not exactly correct, the building will collapse.  However, if the scaffolding around a structure is not exactly perfect, no one cares.  As long as it allows the builders to create the meaning in the middle of all the pipes and boardwalks and plastic sheeting, no one cares if some parts are not exactly level or if the corners are not perfectly square.  As long as it holds up (and keeps the builders safe), the scaffolding is only a tool to allow something else to be built.  And that's the key point - grammar is a tool to create communication, not part of the message to be communicated.

To show you what I mean, think about how we stress words in English.  If you're unfamiliar with the idea, think about a sentence like, "When do we gotta finish by?" (1)  In this sentence, we, as native speakers would most likely stress the words when and finish (2) as these words carry the bulk of the communicative weight of the sentence.  In other words, if someone just muttered "when finish?" you'd still know what they meant.  Which means that all the other words in the sentence are just scaffolding.  The verb do, the subject we, and the dangling preposition by serve only to highlight and better display the real query:  when finish? (3)

So, with this tortured analogy in mind, what, exactly, is grammar?  Here are a few definitions:

Merriam-Webster: 

1a:  the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence

1b: a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection

2a: the characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language

2b: a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language

Cambridge English Dictionary:

(the study or use of) the rules about how words change their form and combine with other words to make sentences

Wikipedia:

in linguistics, the grammar (from Ancient Greek γραμματική grammatikḗ) of a natural language is its set of structural constraints on speakers' or writers' composition of clauses, phrases, and words. (4)

Between these different definitions, there are a lot of nuances and subtleties to unpack, which I'm going to do over the next couple of issues.  We're going to look at the etymology of the word grammar, the ways in which teaching grammar is changing, and how grammar itself changes over time.  I hope you come along for the ride.

Footnotes

  1. How many grammar errors did you catch?  How many of them affected your understanding of the question?  How many would you have noticed if the sentence had been spoken during a conversation?  You get my point.

  2. Standard disclaimer:  due to regional accents, variations in dialects, and individual speech patterns as well as contextual elements like urgency or irritation, your milage may vary.

  3. The mangled "have to" in this sentence is where my argument breaks down.  It's not entirely scaffolding because it does carry the weight of signifying an obligation.  Even then, however, I suggest that there might be enough context clues to make the question understood.  Or, if not understood, then at least enough got through for the listener to ask for clarification.

  4. It is interesting to me that Wikipedia places the idea of grammar as a system of rules to be followed under the separate heading of prescriptive grammar.  I mean, I agree, but, uh, them's fighting words?

Trivially Yours

That giant weirdo in this week’s photo is called a tanuki, or a Japanese raccoon-dog. They are fun critters and Japanese mythology is full of stories about their shenanigans.

Real ones are something less amusing. It’s not an accident that they’re called raccoons, even though they are not actually in the same family. Like their namesake, real tanuki have been forced to live near people through habitat destruction and that, in turn, has made them scavengers and pests. They’ll get into your trash and then get themselves killed on the streets by running out in front of cars.

But, this particular giant statue of a tanuki is from a town called Mashiko, here in central Japan, which has been making pottery and ceramic goods for centuries. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make Mashiko a stop. You’ll be glad you did.

Stay curious,

J

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