Getting a grip on grammar

March 20, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

If you are a native speaker of English, you have English grammar in your head, and it has been there since you were a very small child. Unfortunately, the process of translating that grammar into terms for discussion of writing has not gone well.

Traditional schoolroom grammar borrowed terms from Latin that were not always a good fit with English, and it codified English grammar into a rigid set of rules (some of them bogus) that oversimplified the language for pedagogical purposes. Then, over the past couple of generations, many schools moved away from the formal teaching of grammar. The result is that college students bring to my editing class either half-remembered terms and rules or a lack of terminology altogether.

Linguists, of course, have demonstrated the inadequacies of the traditional schoolroom grammar and established their own terminology. Useful as it is, it is not taught outside linguistics classes. I could assign Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum's Student's Introduction to English Grammar, but then I would have to spend an entire semester teaching it and would never get around to actual editing.

Until such time, if ever, as the educational establishment finds a way to incorporate linguists' insights into the teaching of writing,* we are left with half-measures to show students and adults how to get an analytical grasp on their own language. Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl publications do so effectively, and now there is another.

Val Dumond"s The Anarchist's Guide to Grammar (Muddy Puddle Press, 289 pages, $19,50) is a breath of fresh air. The anarchism lies in her initial insistence that you, the reader, should throw off the half-remembered and half-understood rules you were taught and take control of your own language.

She goes systematically through basic grammar, explaining the parts of speech in conversational language** as she introduces the terms, offering examples of how they function. Syntax, too, and punctuation. Advice on spelling. And numbers. And sexist language.And some suggestions about developing a personal style manual.

The section on writing is a little like an afterthought, really too truncated to be of much help, but it is explanations of grammar, syntax, and usage that make the book useful to the writer left unprepared by his or her schooling. 

An example of her approach might be helpful. The order of adjectives is one of those rules that native speakers know without having to be taught. Here's what Ms. Dumond says:

"Many grammarians have tried to devise an order to multiple adjectives. And, of course, not too many of them agree. Exhaustive research turned up as many lists of order as there are grammarians. The following seems to be an acceptable order. Decide for yourself and place your list in Your Style Manual." 

The order she gives is article, opinion, appearance, age, color, origin, material, and purpose. It is serviceable, but the important element in the entry, the thread running through the whole book, is "Decide for yourself."

Ms. Dumond's anarchism does not extend to the language. She understands rules and conventions, and she knows the difference between the two. Her anarchic purposes is to overthrow the defective or inadequate teaching that leaves writers intimidated by their own language, freeing them to master it as they find their own voices.

*When I was a graduate student in the English department at Syracuse, I suggested that we use ESL texts and methods in the freshman composition classes, since the English as a Second Language teachers had developed  methods to teach the language that actually appeared to work. But the English faculty did not want to lose caste.

**Though she addresses the book to American writers and focuses on American English, she loves British slang and delights in chivvying the reader on with it: "Which uni taught you this codswallop?" and the like. May not be entirely to your taste, but I find it charming.

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