Monday, January 21, 2013

The Arts of Grammar


While building my English Composition I class for the spring semester, I did something I do before every semester: I consult a raft of reference books, looking for new ways to teach my students proper grammar. A book I’ve had for a long time, but didn’t pay much attention to, was A Grammar of the English Tongue, by Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is the preface of his Dictionary of the English Language. Aside from its archaic title, what kept me away from it was its publication date: 1755. What good is an ancient grammar book?

A lot, it turns out.

Grammar--according to Dr. Johnson--is the art of using words properly. Think about that: the art of using words properly. We hear a lot about the art of things: the art of motorcycle maintenance, (from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); the art of war (from Sun Tzu’s seminal work of the same name, still studied by military leaders today); the art of dealing or negotiating in business (from businessman Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal); and any number of other “art of”s pertaining to various life skills, the most popular of which can be seen by entering the words “the art of” into a Google search, which then lists the most popular arts-of in this order: shaving, war, manliness, and flight. That list should tell all that needs knowing about which gender is more concerned with the “art” of things--further interpretations are left to the reader.

But what does it mean to study the “art” of doing something? After all, art doesn’t imply a strict set of rules, which is what most people think of when they think of grammar. Yet art does require adherence to form, structure, and execution--in essence, rules. Great painters don’t simply throw paint across a canvass (the stretching of the canvass requires a protocol--rules--that even Jackson Pollack followed). Great musicians work within a system of musical notation and common structures (verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, verse-chorus, for pop music). And even great writers need to write sentences that readers can understand--otherwise, how will the writer share the story? Telling a story--communicating--is the point of writing. Mastering that “art”--the arrangement of words so that they’re understood--is the point of studying grammar.

So to think of the art of something is simply to think of its methodology--how it’s done. Once you learn the basics of how grammar is done--by studying its rules, then practicing--you’ll be able to employ this skill in your own writing. The employment of those skills according to your own needs is the art. The art of grammar is the proper use of words to communicate effectively. Effective communication includes artistic communication. 

Now that we know what the art of grammar is, it’s time to look at the structure of grammar. What are the underlying elements define and control grammar? According to Dr. Johnson, there are four:

  1. Orthography. Orthography means to write (or spell) words correctly. It comes from the Greek roots orthos (correct) and graphia (writing). If you don’t spell words correctly, readers won’t understand what you’re trying to say in your writing. 
  2. Etymology. This is the study of the origins of words. If you know what the history of a word is, you what its root meaning is. For example, if I tell you that I’m going to defenestrate you, you might not have the foggiest notion what I mean--who uses the word “defenestrate” in their daily speech? But if you recognize the prefix “de” from the Latin meaning “out of” or “away from,” and the Latin root for the word window “fenestra,” you can figure it out quickly--I hope: it means I’m going to toss you out the window. (French speakers recognize the French word for window in the word: fenetre. French speakers also know that the difference between the words fornication and formication is substantial and potentially unpleasant.)
  3. Syntax. These are the rules that govern sentence structure in a particular language--in this case, English. Syntax is how we arrange words into grammatical (or sensible) sentences. For example, you wouldn’t say, “The to walked store I”; instead, you’d say, “I walked to the store.” Both sentences have all the elements of a sentence: subject, verb, and a preposition phrase containing an object, making the thought complete. But only the second makes sense, because it follows English language syntax. Children who are just learning to speak--and thus just learning syntax--often butcher syntax with hilarious results: “Store go I walk.” 
  4. Prosody. This is the rhythm and sound of a language, and it’s made up of two elements: Orthoepy, which are the rules of pronunciation; and orthometry, which are the rules of meter, as in poetry, meaning the cadence of the words. There are rules for pronouncing words so that others can understand them. There are also rules about pronouncing words within a sentence so that others can understand them. 

So don’t think of grammar as something treacherous and foreign. Think of it as an adventure of discovery, a destruction of mythology and mystery, where we’ll learn not only how to write good sentences, but why

Works Cited

Johnson, Samuel. (2013-01-21). A Grammar of the English Tongue. Kindle Edition. 

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