This Christmas, Give the Gift that Keeps On Giving

Posted: Nov 27, 2006 10:24 AM

Not only is it useful but fashionable as well. The Washington Post reports that commas have made a comeback! This is, without a doubt, a welcome fashion statement as well dressed paragraphs have been hard to find.

We now face a generation unschooled in the rudiments of grammar, much less the elements of style. Grammar drills have been supplanted by a more "holistic" approach to teaching English. In my honors American government class, an otherwise bright young man submitted an essay on the "Separation of Powers" with tortured syntax and spotty grammar. He explained that his high school teachers — and I'm embarrassed to say, his college English teacher —were more concerned with "context."

Some people, unsophisticated in the ways of modern education, might call that lazy teaching.

According to David Mulroy in "The War Against Grammar", we will be lucky if infinitives survive a militant campaign directed against their proper use. Among other consequences, Mulroy explains that those who are weak in grammar will struggle in learning modern foreign languages, let alone Latin or classical Greek. I am using a bit of my free time to guest teach Latin at my son's school and we are beginning to uncover weaknesses in the student's grammar formation. It's hard to go very far with the ablative case if mastering the idea of an indirect object is as foreign a concept as Caesar's subjugation of the Gauls.

Does Mulroy's martial language exaggerate, ad absurdum, the dangerous predicament in which we now find the proper use of pronouns? Hardly. As I have argued in my own recent work, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, the war for language has a fierce ideological component. It is one of the theaters of operation in the culture wars.

This campaign against the proper placement of semicolons, is, more broadly, a revolt against tradition. It is only fully understood by reference to the rebellion led by education philosopher John Dewey. Grammar represents authority and Progressive education was (and still is) all about a revolt against authority, whether that be the authority of tradition, religion, a canon of learning — or the structure of language. The dismantling of grammar is part and parcel of the deconstruction of education, a process essential to Progressive nihilists if schools are to be remade into the vehicle of Dewey's political campaign.

This means, then, that grammar has been politicized. It is not just a matter of laziness, although there is laziness aplenty. This analysis, moreover, helps us to understand why many opponents of the proper use of language are so aggressive and energetic. They are on a mission.

Why should we care? It only matters if we think it important that students are able to read. I find that my students simply can't understand the Federalist Papers, and if they can't understand Federalist Paper #51, they can't understand the nature of their own government.

It only matters if we want students to be able to communicate, whether orally or in writing. If we are satisfied with a level of language characterized by crude rap - like fragments, then we have nothing to worry about. If, on the other hand, I insist that a student explain the plot of a book — without using the word “like" more than 2 - 3 times — she is tongue -tied. The young today speak in Instant Messenger emoticons, substituting a grimace or a mouth agape for a descriptive paragraph: “When Harry Potter won the Quidditich Cup competition, I was like: O - o - o - o - oh!!!”

It also matters if we want our sons and daughters to develop a sense of aesthetics. There is nothing more elegant than a well - turned phrase, a persuasive paragraph or an evocative sonnet. Without an appreciation of beauty, though, nothing is beautiful, nor is anything ugly. The moral implications of such linguistic poverty are frightening to contemplate.

What might make a nice grammatical gift for the holidays? The best books on grammar are both a delight to read and also follow the rubric "less is more." The ones to avoid take a shoehorn and cram so many rules into the text that the reader may be driven in despair to sign language. Entertaining grammar need not be an oxymoron.

In my view, until the day that James J. Kilpatrick decides to combine his weekly syndicated column "The Writers Art" into a text, we'll just have to settle for second best.

Lynne Truss's cleverly titled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", now a classic, is out in paperback for the holidays. A Grammar Book for You and I (Oops, Me): "All the Grammar You Need to Succeed", by C. Edward Good, is as practical as it is witty.

Going on two decades, William Safire's "How Not To Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar", is just the right size to stuff the stocking. Safire advises, "In their writing, everyone should make sure that their pronouns agree with its antecedent." My favorite this year is "The Mountain Man's Field Guide to Grammar: A fearless Adventure in Grammar, Style, and Usage." The examples fit the theme nicely. In respect to the conjunction "but", it is redundant to say, "Zeke Hatcher had no doubt but that Parker Daniels deserved to hang." Better in this case to omit the conjunction and get on with justice: "Zeke Hatcher had no doubt that Parker Daniels deserved to hang."

Finally, if your interest is more in style than in grammar, consider either the perennial favorite by Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style", and the newer contender, "Write Tight" by William Brohaugh. None of these recommendations is likely to be returned on December 26.