I began collecting old grammar books when I wrote the Writing Essentials course.  It was fun.  I found the green one we used in high school circa 1963.  Someone had thrown it in a dumpster.  But one of my favorites is from 1891, called Maxwell’s English Grammar:  Advanced Lessons.  Who wouldn’t like a grammar book that has a chapter called, “The Economy of Attention”?

Maxwell begins his preface with a quote from John Stuart Mill which reads as follows:

Consider for a moment what grammar is.  It is the most elementary part of logic.  It is the beginning of the analysis of the thinking process.  The principles and rules of grammar are the means by which the forms of language are made to correspond with the universal forms of thought. …. The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic. 

It occurs to me that he is saying what we all have been practicing, that putting words onto the page is a way to understand and clarify our thoughts.  Making sure that our sentences make sense, then, requires enough revision that logic emerges so we can share out thoughts.  Grammar helps us make sure our “forms of language” communicate.

Perhaps the best definition of grammar I’ve found comes from the out-of-print book, Pinckert’s Practical Grammar (published in 1986 and still available from Amazon’s used book sellers).  He writes:

In a sentence, all the words are related to each other; grammar is the attempt to explain the relationships.

Part of the fun of writing, to me, is finding that the things I have discovered on my own, show up in books about writing.  We are all writing to discover what works and what doesn’t.  We are all turning ourselves inside out to probe what we honestly know and figure out how to express that.  We stand on our heads to shake loose new ideas so we can put two and two together and enjoy the surprise when they equal 97.

Is grammar dry?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps to consider how the words go together is one more way to peer into the gloom to find solid ground.  Then, I’m guessing, we can let logic wrestle with our lurking love of chaos.

8 responses to “Language

  1. Then Markus Zusak wrote The Book Thief and forever after the relationship of words was never the same.

  2. Ann mentions “chaos” in the closing of her post. I have this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche taped to the top of the monitor since I first started writing:

    “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

    It gives me permission to create as I do. While it doesn’t guarantee any “dancing stars,” occasionally one will twinkle and give my mind brief respite.

  3. I love your post about grammar. School tends to make grammar so tedious, so ridiculously boring and separated from the art of writing. Your post makes me want to love grammar (it is a struggle) because loving grammar becomes an necessary element in forming art. I love the quotes from both Ann and Jeff. How lovely to ponder the prospect that we may all have an occasional star to illumine the dark. Although I am not an artist, I have loved the beauty and truth art reveals. These thoughts only affirm my belief that writing is painting, sculpting, carving, welding, casting art by the beauty of words arranged with a grammatical palette.

  4. I posted the following at the tail of the last subject, perhaps worth repeating:

    A friend’s email mentioned a poet William Carlos Williams. I looked him up, Here is a quote attributed to him:

    “Forget all rules, forget all restrictions,as to taste, as to what should be said, write for the pleasure of it…”

  5. Ann,may I have permission to photograph Onward is Best (perhaps the cover and a page or two) and use them on my blog?

  6. Definitely. I am very pleased that you want to use it. I still find it a very inspiring book and read it every Christmas.

    My sister’s husband managed to get Neiman Marcus to take 100 copies to sell in their online Christmas catalog this year. We just heard they sold 93 out of 100. We are very pleased and excited. Onward!

  7. Terrific! I’ll be sure to add a link for purchase. Thanks. Sorry to admit I discarded the piece of ribbon that came with mine. I had no idea of its significance until later . Sigh.

  8. Hope you’re having some nice holidays, Ann. Thank you for all you’ve done to encourage me, challenge me, and help me believe in myself. It is a great gift and has changed my life in many ways.

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