Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Elizabeth Yank yet again and the wisdom she brings from 27 years of homeschooling. And if you missed her last piece about why she homeschools, be sure to read it. Enjoy! -SR
Just bring out the English grammar book and let the whining begin. We’ve all heard our son or daughter complaining, “This is sooooo borrrring. Why should we study grammar?”As parents, however, we aren’t much more excited. Whenever the topic comes up, I notice a deep sense of frustration on the part of parents. They are as excited about teaching grammar as they are about changing the baby’s dirty diaper. “Can’t someone else do it?!”
Why Study Grammar?
I could say, “We need to study grammar because it is good for you—like eating your broccoli” but that doesn’t give the whole story. There are six, yes six, good reasons to study grammar. The first reason to study grammar is because it’s fascinating! I know that’s hard to believe—it’s NOT American Idol—but it IS interesting. As humans, we have an innate sense of curiosity in the world around us—a thirst for knowledge. After all, that’s what led Adam and Eve into mischief in the Garden of Eden. They had a desire for knowledge; in their case, too much knowledge. Most likely you or your children do not wake up every morning, saying, “I can’t wait to learn about gerunds and participles! However, over 1 million people think that grammar is interesting enough to buy the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book about punctuation.
A second reason to study grammar is because it is an exercise for the mind, a form of analysis, a mental exercise similar to chess, crossword puzzles, or Sudoku. It challenges the little gray cells—as Inspector Poirot would say.
A third reason to study grammar is because it creates clarity of thought. When it’s time for dinner, do you say? “Time to eat boys!” or “Time to eat, boys!” This is a perfect example of how punctuation can dramatically change the meaning of what we want to say. Proper use of grammar creates clarity of thought.
A fourth reason to study grammar is because it reflects on who we are —whether proper or improper. We are all familiar with the term “first impression.” Simply because we are human, we judge others based on how we perceive them. Therefore, how we present ourselves to others, how we look, speak, and act creates an impression.
In her book, It’s So You, Mary Sheehan Warren writes, “What are you wearing right now? What does your outfit say about you? Is it you?” (1). In speaking about style, she goes on to say, “It should raise the tone of any setting, celebrate our womanhood, and affirm all the other many wonderful attributes which makes up our personality” (12).
We can say the same in how we speak. What does our speech say about us? Does it raise the tone of any setting, celebrate our womanhood (since she is speaking to women we can enlarge this to our personhood—as humans created in the image of God) and affirm all the other many wonderful attributes which make up our personalities.
If I say, “Git-R-Done!” What kind of mental impression do you have of me? Highly educated college professor, right?!
If I pepper my speech with, “Oh, for real! Like, you know, for sure! Kinda, like, I mean, you knoooooww!” Hmm. What kind of assumption do you make?
If I were to speak at a homeschool conference wearing a tight knit, low cut dress, glittery, platform high heels, purple hair, tattoos, and a nose ring, you would say, “Whoa! Am I in the right place? You would form a distinct opinion of me. That is what grammar does for you!
At the same time, if you read (This is something my son Peter received in the mail for Landscape Design), “If you are interested in working on the global cultural and ecological imperative of creating sustainable and resilient landscapes for the 21st century and you want to study at a major university in a diverse setting, I look forward to welcoming you to . . . .”
If you say, “Huh! What are you talking about?” That is a good thing. Your brain cells are working. You should not say, “Wow! Impressive!” In the school’s efforts to sound PC, this writing lacks clarity and purpose. It sounds pretentious, actually accomplishing the opposite of good writing.
If I want to gain respect as an individual, as a speaker, as an authority on a subject, then I have to acknowledge that how I speak reflects on me. Do I speak with dignity and grace, as a bearer of Christ, also recognizing that Christ lives in me and those around me, even the ones that irritate me?
In the same manner, how I write reflects on me. I may be highly qualified for a position, but if I send in a resume that is incoherent and riddled with grammatical errors, it won’t matter if I am qualified or not because the resume reflects poorly on my writing skills. Grammar reflects on who we are.
A fifth reason to study grammar is because a basic understanding of grammar is imperative if we are going to learn a language, any language, especially a second language. If the teacher (or book) is going to use terminology the student is not familiar with it, he or she is going to struggle with the material, if not completely get lost. If I say to my daughter, circle all of the nouns and underline all of the verbs, she needs to know what a noun and a verb are. Grammar is the common language we use to communicate about the study of language.
A sixth reason to study grammar is to make our writing more pleasant. Grammar is only one aspect of the writing process, but it does make our writing more coherent and pleasant to read. I have corrected papers, edited manuscripts, and reviewed books that had so many grammatical errors that I felt like, I, was, first, learning, to drive, stick shift, on a road, filled, with potholes, going uphill. Jerk! Jerk! Jerk! It was absolute torture.
The writing did not flow and even if the content was interesting, after a point, I had no further interest in reading because I found the style to be cumbersome and tiresome. If you have ever tried to sew with a sewing machine that is constantly snagging, the material getting caught, the bobbin getting jammed, sooner or later, you just don’t care about finishing the garment.
Why is grammar so important? Without grammar we could not talk about language—no matter what the language. Grammar is the language of language. Because grammar identifies the words and groups of words that make up the sentences, grammar allows us to talk about the construction of sentences, the types of words and word groups. Grammar is the structure of language and how it works. We are studying language patterns.
Why study grammar? Not to frustrate us. Yes, there are some idiomatic parts of grammar that are irritating. When is the last time someone knocked on your front door and asked, “Is Mary home? And you replied, “It is I.”
I don’t know about you. But it is rather embarrassing to eat fresh blueberries or broccoli and to go into public with them stuck between your teeth. You wouldn’t do it if you knew it was there. Later, when you are near a mirror—if someone has not already told you, there you are! You don’t want to get caught with broccoli in your teeth, but we do it all the time with our grammar. Is it “their friends” or “They’re friends”?
Grammar is a tool to help us communicate our thoughts clearly, precisely, and with a purpose. Why is this sentence, paragraph, paper, not understandable and interesting? Grammar unlocks that question.
Ultimately through the study of language, grammar offers us a window into the complexity of the human mind.
Before we part, consider the grammar question of the day. Is the word “book”, a noun, a verb, or an adjective?
And lastly, something for you to ponder, which I found on the internet:
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.” (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.)
Copyright 2014, Elizabeth Yank
Elizabeth Yank, a mom of 10, has been homeschooling for 27 years. She has been published in Faith and Family, National Catholic Register, Lay Witness, Catholic Exchange, mater et magistra and other Catholic and homeschool publications. She has also spoken at numerous homeschool conferences. You can find her blogging at coolstuff4catholics.