An Unexpected Lesson from Sir Winston Churchill

I subscribe to Today in Literature, a free e-newsletter about books, poetry, and authors from around the world. (It’s amazing what I don’t know about literature, in spite of my doctorate!)

A recent edition featured an excerpt from My Early Years, a memoir by Sir Winston Churchill.

See if you notice the same thing I did. Churchill is remembering that the smart boys in his class were taught Latin and Greek. Duller boys – Churchill among them – were relegated to – gasp – an English class:

We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks….It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Churchill is one of many people over the years who believe that good writing is grounded in a thorough knowledge of English grammar. I think they’re wrong (I still don’t know how to diagram a sentence!).

Obviously I don’t have the stature to argue with Churchill. But here’s what struck me when I read that excerpt: Churchill was arguing against himself. Take a look at these sentences:

He knew how to do it.

It was a kind of drill.

We did it almost daily.

I learned it thoroughly.

Now look at these sentences:

Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English.

Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Despite those fond memories of Mr. Somervell’s classes, Churchill didn’t learn how to write that way in school. Churchill’s style features many straightforward declarative sentences (“We did it almost daily”) that any fifth grader could write without the instruction in sentence analysis that Churchill was subjected to.

But what about those long, fancy sentences? Here’s the other thing that struck me about Churchill’s writing: He was addicted to dashes. (So am I, by the way.)

I can just about guarantee that Mr. Somervell didn’t allow his students to use dashes, which are spontaneous punctuation marks that don’t work with formal sentence analysis. (Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.) 

My suspicion is Churchill left out an important feature of Mr. Somervell’s classes: Actual writing. I would bet the farm (if I owned one) that students spent hours and hours writing and revising essays for Mr. Somervell. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you learn to write. You plop into a chair, pick up a pen (or put your fingers on a keyboard), and get to it.

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I can’t resist offering one more example to argue my point. Take a look at these sentences from this post and see if you notice anything:

Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.

There’s an indefinite pronoun reference! If you tried to diagram the second sentence, you’d notice that we has no antecedent. A grammarian would say that the word students has to appear somewhere in the previous sentence.

I say…bosh. Precision is a wonderful thing, but lively writing should always take precedence.

Sir Winston Churchill

            Sir Winston Churchill

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4 thoughts on “An Unexpected Lesson from Sir Winston Churchill

  1. AvatarStephen

    I’m not sure the two (Churchill’s exhaustive grounding in the parts of speech of English and his mature, more expressive style) are mutually exclusive. I take his point to be that it was precisely practice with the basic “shapes” of English that formed his skill, like a painter who learns by drawing simple spheres over and over.
    In the larger passage of which this quote is a part, if I recall, he prefers his humble training in English to that of students who spent more time in Latin and Greek. Opposing the traditional view that the study of classical languages was the means to improve one’s style, Churchill is arguing that meticulous study of English itself would achieve the same end.
    The loss of intense studies in grammar of whatever language and the virtual disappearance of stirring rhetoric, which went out with JFK, can not be a coincidence. Today’s educational methods stress vocabulary over grammar, whereas Churchill’s “Never have so many owed so much to so few” or Caesar’s “Veni vidi vici” are the result of grammar study and knowledge of how power is lent to language most especially by word order and arrangement.

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment! And you’re right (of course) about the emphasis on vocabulary – which I consider an unfortunate change. I do business consulting, and it’s a struggle to convince people that ordinary, everyday language is fine for business (and almost any writing). I wish schools would teach WRITING. How to discover ideas, develop them, organize them, and present them. How to communicate effectively through words – which, of course, Churchill did superbly.

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