Grammar and Language

Hypocrisy surrounds the teaching of grammar as with so many other aspects of the English curriculum. Educators, whose grammar is impeccable, and who benefit richly from the rewards of accurate grammar, tell us that any knowledge of it outside the experience of whole literature (alas, too rarely holy), or any learning of grammar from manual, rule, or exercise is damaging to the creative spirit. If that works for you, great; however, if you find you still can't talk clearly about what your sentences, or the novelist's, poet's, and essayist's sentences are doing, or not doing, then perhaps you need to learn this "language of language" the old fashioned way, just the way those educators did.

Grammar is the business of seeing into the connections that words make among themselves to produce meaning. "Fixing mistakes" is a legitimate reason to study grammar, but more significant is the way it increases our power over the words we make and read.The knowledge of grammar is power. Detractors will muddy this obvious truth by claiming that grammar is just Latin recycled to fit another language; that certain usages resist grammatical description; that grammar is elitist in its proscriptive tendency to exclude dialect and colloquialism; the answer to which is : so what? and : get serious. We are what we think and speak, so, if we are to know ourselves, isn't it clear (to anyone not wearing a theorist's stripe) that, to begin with , we should know the word?

The internet has many useful grammar links although it is clear that most of the site makers are running scared. They want students to be able to speak about what distinguishes one author's style from another; what makes one paragraph superior to another; what goes into producing an effective rhetoric; but darned if they can see their way to letting you practice on anything. A friendly chat about dribbling and passing should be enough - no practice required. So goes the current thinking, the idea behind this being that if you take language out of its natural (whole) context it will somehow rot your mind and rob you of all creativity.

I shall include a few exercises for the basic elements of grammatical description, along with a copy of the much condensed definition of terms used in class. Linguists may have enough to keep themselves busy for many more lifetimes but a little diligence spread over a few days can give you the power to speak clearly about language.

The Shifting Rhythms of Grammar

You have only eight
Eight to break the code:
Something does;
Specialize them both
With modifier single, phrase, or clause;
Add some more of the same if you like,
But then you've shot your bolt
(Except for the lightening bolt
To scream with; you'll need that.)

With these weak tools
We try to probe the universe.
These are the chains that bind and lead
To what and where our fate allows.
They bless and blast
Smile and frown
Sing and soar, divide and drown.
Are they God's keys
Or Satan's gown?

Community of eight
Lead us to the gate
Make us speak in tongues
Fill our spirit lungs
Truthful beauty be
Help your servants see.

(B Bauld)

  • ARHS Grammar Notes

  • Why Study Grammar? (B.Bauld)

  • Perhaps the most complete of the grammar resources found on my LINKS page is this one: "Guide to Grammar and Writing" -replete with exercises and a dozen powerpoint presentations

  • Dr. Jennifer MacLennan knows the power of words. Read what she says about the importance of understanding how these words work. Then follow on to her excellent website on Rhetoric

  • Marcel Proust loved the long sentence. Here is one that runs 600 words.

  • How Not to Write Analogies
  • How To Write Good Analogies

  • How To Write a Well Structured Essay ("Hills like White Elephants" example)

  • Joseph Epstein ("Aristides") on Language

  • Joseph Epstein ("Aristides") on Writing

  • Mavis Gallant on Style

  • F.L. Lucas on "The Fascination of Style" -excellent advice on producing a good essay

  • How to Say Nothing in 500 Words by Paul Roberts" -more excellent advice on producing a good essay

  • Annie Proulx discusses the craft of the prose writer

  • The Very Best of Bad Writing
  • Bad Writing Contest Winners:1997
  • Bad Writing Contest Winners:1998
  • "Language Crimes" by Dennis Dutton, founder of the Bad Writing Contest
  • Dennis Dutton Interviewed in "The Gleeful Contrarian

    Steven Pinker on "Language and Consciousness" from the Thinking Allowed Series

  • George Orwell: "Politics and the English Language" -Here is the classic essay on language, written over fifty years ago and more relevant than ever. The most important essay on this page!

  • George Orwell: "The Prevention of Literature": -a continuation of the idea that "the enemies of truthfulnness" use language to block communication

  • Barbara Epstein on "Postmodernism and the Left" a lengthy and astonishing discussion on postmodernism for those former students of mine suffering its effects and temptations in university

  • Mark Helpern on Why Linguists Are Not To Be Trusted On Language Usage a lengthy and insightful commentary on prescriptive vs descriptive grammar

  • Mark Helpern on "the fallacy of linguistic autonomy" where he asks us to rethink the idea that language is a living, growing thing.

  • "Sexist Language" by Kelley L. Ross

  • "The Poetry of Cormac McCarthy" (BBauld) Blurring the line between poetry and prose-a poetic reading of a passage from McCarthy's novel, The Crossing.

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