Years ago, when I was working as a consultant, my presentations often included a filmed interview with a man who was a business writing expert. You could tell from the clothing and the scratchy soundtrack that the film was old. Still, it was the best film about business writing I’ve ever seen, and it was always a big hit with the people who watched it.
I have – alas – forgotten most of the content of the film, but one point in the interview stayed with me: The expert said that English “never had any grammar” until some self-appointed language authorities started to impose their own system of rules. Yikes. No grammar? English has always had grammar! Think of those workbooks I labored over in grade school! Think of Noam Chomsky!
I’ve always wished that I’d had a chance to track down that expert (I can’t remember his name) and ask what he meant. That’s never going to happen, but in a way that’s a good thing because it means I’ve had to come up with my own answer to that question.
Grammar has been on my mind for the past few days in connection with two Instant Quiz questions I posted on this blog. (I always delete them after a couple of days, so don’t try looking for them.)
Here’s Quiz #1:
The arena is located about two miles West of Smithville.
The correct answer is that you should lower-case west because it’s an adverb. And now (gulp!) I’m going to confess that I was surprised to find out that west was an adverb. When I went to school back in the 50s and 60s, we didn’t spend much time on parts of speech. Most of the smattering of formal grammar I know came from four years of high-school Latin. (Ablative absolute, anyone?)
Here’s my reason for making west lower case: “west of Smithville” isn’t the name of a real place, like the Midwest or the Deep South, so there’s no capital letter.
This back-and-forth discussion is an example of something I’ve been preaching about lately: Learning from other people’s thinking processes. Although I rarely think about grammatical categories, obviously many other writers and teachers do. We can learn from one another.
But then I started thinking about writing the sentence differently. Would west still be an adverb?
The arena is west of here.
Because a grammarian would classify “is” as a linking verb, west can’t be an adverb. But it’s not really an adjective either, at least not in the usual sense. We might have an “old arena” or a “big arena,” but it is certainly not a “west arena.”
I’m sure someone has worked out a grammatical explanation for this. I even considered looking for one myself – and then I backed off. Who cares what part of speech it is? There’s no chance that someone is going to confuse the adverb west with the adjective west. There’s no word “westly.”
Hang on to that thought while we go on to Instant Quiz #2:
A thick buttery crust adds a special touch to ordinary macaroni and cheese.
I would insert a comma between the adjectives thick and buttery:
A thick, buttery crust adds a special touch to ordinary macaroni and cheese.
But sometimes you don’t insert that comma between two adjectives. How do you know when it goes in – and when it stays out? My friend Gustavo A. Rodriguez Martinez said he’d been told that comma isn’t required with two adjectives in the same semantic category. (Another confession: I’d never heard of that rule!) So, for example, there’s no comma if you’re talking about a “big fat cat.” Makes sense.
But Gustavo sensibly noted that “good old” works the same way – and those adjectives aren’t related. And then I thought of my own example:
Several clients said they liked our fresh, new look.
I would insert the comma even though “fresh” and “new” are semantically related, violating the rule we’ve been talking about.
Now I want to swing back to Mr. Business Writing from that vintage film and his declaration that English “never had any grammar.” Maybe what he meant was that English has never needed any grammar.
Before you run screaming for the nearest exit, hear me out.
If you study Latin, which doesn’t bother much with word order, you have to learn grammatical cases and their endings: nominative, objective, dative, ablative, and so on.
But if you grew up speaking English, you generally don’t need familiarity with subjects, predicates, adverbial clauses (a term I never really got the hang of), gerundives, and so on. Even tiny children quickly figure out word order: Joe loves Jane is different from Jane loves Joe (as many heartbroken suitors know all too well).
Because of the consistent way English sentences are structured, you can solve many usage problems without a lengthy detour into grammatical theory. For example, focusing on the beginning of a sentence will often clear up dangling modifiers, run-ons, fragments and subject-verb agreement errors. You can fix most pronoun problems without resorting to grammar terminology.
Formal grammar, on the other hand, is often a confusing waste of time. Indulge me while I give you an example of the nonsensical way we teach language skills. Take a look at this chart, which you’ll find in just about every English grammar book ever published: Schoolchildren are solemnly told that English has a singular second-person verb (you cook) and a plural one (you cook). Can you see any difference between them?
I can’t either. So why do we write the chart that way? Because that’s how Latin verbs work, and English grammar theory is based on Latin.
Here’s another problem: Despite the heading, these aren’t really present-tense verbs. Picture this situation: Your mother just had a bout with the flu, and you call her to ask how she’s feeling. She says she’s almost back to normal. “Great!” you say. “So what are you doing right now?” “I cook,” she says.
Really? Yes, the chart says that “I cook” is the first-person, present-tense, singular form of cook. But what your mother would really say is “I’m cooking.” Can you find “I’m cooking” on the chart?
I can’t either.
And why do we have a six-part-chart for present-tense verbs when five of the elements are the same (I cook, you cook, we cook, you cook, they cook)? By now you can probably answer that question yourself: It’s because Latin present-tense verbs have six endings.
I’ve had many students who were in the habit of saying “He don’t” instead of “He doesn’t.” I teach them the rhyming phrase “1, 2, I, you” and encourage them to write it on a piece of scratch paper as a reminder when they were working on a writing task. Problem solved – without the need to enter a time machine and travel back to the Roman Empire.
So I think Mr. Business Writing, with his skepticism about grammar, was on to something really important. Here’s what really troubles me about the way we teach English: Every minute spent memorizing grammatical terms and underlining subjects and predicates is a minute that not spent on actual writing.
Let’s go back to Instant Quiz #2 and the problem of when you insert a comma between two adjectives – and when you don’t. How do you decide? I can’t lay down any hard-and-fast rule. I do it by feel. Or sound. Or I write it both ways and decide which looks better.
I’ve been reading since I was six years old (often under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep). I’ve been listening to words since the moment I was born. All those language experiences should count for something, and we teachers should be building on them instead of approaching English as if it were an alien tongue.
But what if you’re not a native speaker? Much of the same advice applies. Immerse yourself in the language you’re trying to master. Soak up as many language experiences as you can.
Of course some knowledge of grammar is necessary. (You can’t insert a comma between two adjectives if you don’t know what an adjective is.) But – and you can trust me on this, because I’ve done it – you don’t need an extensive background in grammar to be an effective writer.
One more story. When I was working on my doctorate, some of my fellow students requested a course in formal grammar because they were just as befuddled by adverbial clauses and gerundives as I was. The university agreed to set up a course for them.
I secretly thought (and still do) that those doctoral candidates were crazy. They had master’s degrees in English, for heaven’s sake. Some of them were published writers. They were doing perfectly fine with what they already knew about grammar. Wouldn’t that time have been better spent digging deeper at some of the fascinating problems associated with usage, writing, and teaching?