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    Not Just One but Four Grammars - and Why That's Good

    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    If you're like most people, the word "grammar" makes you cringe. It conjures up memories of long, dull classes in fifth grade, of rules that choke the life out of writing and then dissect it like a dead frog.

    Happily, there are actually not just one but four grammars. Let me explain why that's a good thing.

    Prehistoric people invented talking before there were any rules at all. You can still see this in the way children learn to speak. They just start gabbing, putting words together, discovering what gets the point across and what doesn't. This sort of communication is Grammar One: The way people speak.

    Grammar Two is the study of the way people speak. This grammar isn't of much interest to anyone but linguists. The closest it comes to daily life may be when parents attempt to correct a child's usage - "I went," Tommy, not "I goed." Of course, we all know what Tommy meant by "I goed," but that isn't Standard English. (And Tommy doesn't yet know that "I goad" has its own, very different meaning.)

    Grammar Three is the way people write. Writing brings an added level of formality to language, because it can't rely on the context of speech. Even the most lax dialog in a summer novel is less chaotic than real conversation. Similarly, even the most personal letters are more controlled than a face-to-face talk. Instruction manuals, business proposals, and marketing plans require even more care, to ensure that the point gets across. Let me restate this: Grammar three requires more care than grammar one simply to ensure that the point comes across clearly.

    Grammar Four is the study of the way people write. This is the language of grammarians. It's purpose is not communication but classification. And classification inevitably brings about rigidification. When you're sorting things into boxes, and you come across something that doesn't fit, it's tempting to pitch it out rather than figure out how it could fit - or admit that it's time to make a new box.

    You can consider these four grammars as a continuum:

    Speech > Study of speech > Writing > Study of Writing

    This is the direction I've introduced in the paragraphs above. It provides a common-sense reason for being casual in speaking and taking more care in preparing important documents.

    There is a danger in reversing the continuum:

    Study of writing > Writing > Study of speech > Speech

    When we start to believe that rules create communication, rather than the other way around, we give up our natural human legacy as makers of meaning and become little more than code talkers, at risk of choking on our words.

    What are your own experiences with and opinions of grammar? Are you someone to whom grammar "comes naturally" or a person who has to struggle with it? Do you love it, or does it make you crazy? We'd love to hear your comments.

    - Lester Smith