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A Story of Grammar

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Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to our opinions on the finished product, of course, but the materials of creation are not materials we use in our everyday lives.

Language, by contrast, is everyone’s material, and everyone has an opinion about it. The prolific linguist and writer David Crystal tackles a number of those opinions in his new work, Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, neatly packaged back to back with another recent history, The Story of Be. I confess that before reading the book, I had not given a thought to the dawn of grammar, either as a philosophical notion (starting with ancient Greece) or as integral to a child’s acquisition of language. What struck me in his explication was not so much the insatiable hunger to analyze that prompts Plato to investigate the parts of sentences, but the early application of that study to achieve, as a 16th-century grammarian named William Bullokar put it, “the perfecter writing thereof.”

In other words, almost as soon as people were able to describe the structure of a language, they began to prescribe ways to go about deploying it. Or, as Crystal puts it, “Grammar should never be divorced from meaning.” He delves into the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate at several points along his historical trajectory. What’s taken for granted, though, is the idea that the point of understanding the way language works is to achieve clearer, more cogent communication.

And yet, as Crystal admits halfway through his argument, his own interest in grammar was hardly inspired by the dull, rules-based grammar teaching he suffered as a student. Rather, “deep down, it was a predilection for analyzing things.” From that predilection, he not only grows passionate (and incredibly well informed) about features of earlier forms of English, regional and cultural differences in global English, English on the internet, and so on; he also links grammar to semantics and to what he dubs a “semantic/pragmatic approach” that resolves the prescriptive/descriptive debate.

It’s a great ride along the way. Crystal’s sense of play points a way back to a love of grammar and a pedagogy of grammar that avoid the twin traps of dullness and zombie rules that marked his own school days.

I’m left, though, with a question that comes mostly from my vocation as a fiction writer. My interest in grammar, if it can be called that, came not from a predilection for analyzing things but from the keen desire to exercise my craft or art. In extremely rare cases, we find painters, choreographers, sculptors, composers, and, yes, writers of such uncanny brilliance that they produce great work without having a deep understanding of the tools of their craft. But for the most part, we figure that Picasso knew his oil paints and Beethoven could analyze the key of G major down to the bone. It’s also fair to surmise that they wanted to paint great pictures and write great music; that the analysis followed, rather than anticipated, the urge to create.

For writers of what we think of as literature, I believe the process is the same. The stronger the ambition to produce great writing, the more likely we are to unpack the grammar of our language, to maximize our material. Mostly, we don’t bother with labels and categories, any more than a painter necessarily masters terms of chemistry; the point is to make the best possible use of the stuff. Various writers have tried to crystallize this distinction. The American poet William Carlos Williams called poems “machines made out of words,” driven only by poetry itself. Archibald MacLeish argued that a poem “should not mean, but be.” The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty made the distinction most eloquently, for me, when he wrote, “The writer is like the weaver. He works on the wrong side of his material. He has to do only with language and finds himself, suddenly, surrounded by meaning.”

Not everyone wants to write poems or novels. Nor do many of us share Crystal’s love of analysis. But we all swim in the sea of language. What can fire, for most people, the alchemy that melds grammar and meaning?

Crystal doesn’t quite answer my question, but he does launch his history toward the future with a readable approach that is, in his words, “a replacement of ‘what’ questions by ‘why’ questions”:

[To] make us see that grammar is a dynamic, purposeful, thought-provoking activity which relates to all of us. It is a subject that can be applied to any and every use of language, past and present. … It is the means whereby words, punctuation marks, tones of voice, and other features are integrated into a meaningful and effective whole. Grammar, in short, is the skeleton of style.

And style is … a subject for another post.

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