Maybe I’ve already addressed this but I know it’s a big question and one that needs to be thought about as completely as possible.
Why teach formal grammar? Why not just teach it as it comes up, as the need arises?
I want to be sure to not create a disagreement where none exists. I think you should teach grammar when the need arises. I even think it is extremely effective to do so and very possibly more effective than at other times.
So I do agree with anybody who says that we should teach grammar informally in response to needs.
If there is a disagreement I would have to hold fast over, it would be with anybody who went to the extreme of suggesting that we should only teach grammar informally, perhaps even only according to “felt need.”
We aren’t trying to sell it to the students, we are trying to teach them.
I am simply contending that grammar needs to be taught formally, not that it shouldn’t be taught informally.
So why teach it formally?
From what I can tell, people seem to hold to two general motivations: we should teach formal grammar because it is practical and/or we should teach formal grammar because it is sound.
On the practical side, there seem to be three advantages to learning formal grammar:
- It gives a person more control over his language, and thus enables him to communicate better (more intelligently, more effectively, and more consistently or logically). This applies to writing and speaking as well as reading and listening.
- It enables a person to learn a foreign language more easily. For the most part, the differences between languages are in the words and their patterns. But at the root of every language are the parts of speech and how we use them. So by learning what languages have in common, we can more easily learn where they are different.
- It enables a person to do well on a test, such as the SAT or the Civil Service Exams.
Each of these is a fine reason to use grammar under most circumstances, though none are a necessary good in itself. They show us that grammar offers many advantages, but they don’t tell us about her own unique excellences.
If you enjoy her for her own sake, she’ll give you these benefits. If you demand the benefits but dishonor her, you’ll eventually lose the benefits.
Grammar, in my view, should be taught for her own sake.
Because it isn’t, the benefits she offers are rarely gained.
When they are, she gives them humbly, so the recipient often can’t trace them back to her. Consequently, Grammar has many more beneficiaries than votaries.
When you teach grammar for her own sake, you keep the benefits and also gain her blessings, many of which are simply unpredictable.
When a child learns formal grammar, he becomes her intimate acquaintance and they flourish in a symbiotic relationship like a cherished governess or mother.
She forms his mind to its own nature. She empowers the child to think.
Form itself becomes a mental habit – if the soil is ready. You come to realize that things have structures. You start looking for the structures of things like language, poetry, literature, natural objects (e.g. trees, bodies, the cosmos), and knowledge itself.
By recognizing structure and order you come to perceive the relationships between things and you realize that the life of the thing is embodied in its structure.
You come to love order.
But you don’t make it the end of your observations. It is always a foundation, a skeleton, and never the spirit.
I can imagine some readers hearing the words form, structure, and order and deriving a very different connotation than the one I hear.
Perhaps you hear constraint and limitation. And you think that limitation binds and enslaves us.
And indeed, that would be true if we were infinite beings who could exist without form. However, anything that is not infinite can be what it is only within the constraints that make it what it is. These define (set limits to) its nature.
You can only be a free human being if you accept what a human being is. To chafe at the limits of our human nature is, practically speaking, to hate human beings.
A word also has a definition. That definition limits what the word means. If the word means everything, then it means nothing.
A sentence uses form and words to express a limited meaning.
As Wendell Berry put it so perfectly, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”
Thought cannot think about everything. To try to do so is irresponsible.
A word cannot mean everything.
A sentence cannot think everything.
A government cannot rule everything.
And when a young child learns the form of grammar, he develops two habits of mind that are essential to self-governance and freedom:
- He learns to limit what he is saying to what he is trying to say – he learns to think with limits and therefore to think about something
- And he learns to insist that others mean something when they speak and limit themselves when they rule
So learn grammar for all the practical reasons you want to learn it. But love her for herself too. She’ll give you rewards you couldn’t have imagined before you fell in love.