Monday, May 7, 2012

The Grammar King

I just finished a most unsatisfying semester. I was notched into a class I didn't want to teach, and felt that I was really not able to give my best shot. Not because I didn't know the material -- it was Grammar, and I am a Grammarian. Or, at least, a linguist.
Y'see, the problem is that as a linguist I know that there is a huge difference between the knowledge of the rules of grammar (as they are taught in the school system) and the ability to produce grammatical sentences. For most people, there is no reason or value or validity or worth or profit in studying traditional parts of speech grammar. I felt obliged to share this information with the class, which caused them to ask the question, "Then, why are we here?"  I couldn't answer that one very well.
So there I was, teaching grammar. Since I had to teach it and they had to take it, I vowed that I'd try to 1) make it interesting, and 2) make sure the students got it. As a result, I basically worked on a day to day schedule, talking about nouns and verbs and adjectives and (shudder) adverbs, then testing the students to see what they had absorbed. It made for an up-in-the-air experience which must have been unsettling to modern students, who want to know exactly what they are doing from day to day, and, more importantly, when the test days are.
In this class, students knew the general trend of the lessons, but didn't know precisely what we would be doing on any one day.
It was actually a very liberating experience in a way. I wasn't simply covering a set amount of material in a set time -- I was covering as much as I could cover thoroughly in the time I had. And, I have to admit, for a linguist, talking about syntax and words is fun any time, even if it doesn't serve any real-world purpose.


somewhy said...

No doubt you are fully aware of this, and speak of it often, but I did not know that there is an unwritten rule as to the order of appearance of adjectives until just the other day.

We do not say “the round big rubber red beautiful ball”; we say “the beautiful big round red rubber ball”. We do this because of this unwritten rule: The order is opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose.

I found this from an article in The Telegraph (UK), which led me in turn to The Economist Style Guide (a joy in itself), during one of my voyages of internet discovery.

But I'm now uncomfortable with the expression 'unwritten rule’ as it seems to me such a rule actually has to be written down to be promulgated and hence appreciated.

And secondly, this particular 'unwritten rule' seems to be adopted almost unconsciously from an early age? And here I thought I was an independent thinker...

somewhy said...

And not to be annoying, but I really think you undervalue your expertise when you say it doesn't matter much.

Taken to extreme for example, I'd offer this quote: "What you want to know is whether the translation got the meaning right, not if it used the same words. So DARPA hopes to create semantic evaluation metrics that measure the fidelity with which meaning was conveyed."

Source (for me) is

- which no doubt is a regurgitation of something from your neck of the woods.

Point being - language matters, perhaps more today than ever - given how 'connected' our lives seem. Sorry to carry on.

On both your houses said...

Comment on somewhy: The rule you state is one of my favorites. It's "Three young French girls," not "Young French three girls." And we learn it the way we learn all grammar rules -- intuitively. We have 95% of our grammar before we even enter pre-school.
Comment on Somewhy (2). I didn't say that proficiency in grammar use doesn't matter much. What I said was that learning grammar doesn't increase proficiency. We have two grammars: The one we got in school (useless) and the one we acquired and actually use.