Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Understanding and Using English

One of those Tome Treasures I own is an old grammar handbook: Understanding and Using English. It’s publish date is 1949 and it is by the Birks, Newman B and Genevieve B, respectively. I am always curious and interested in browsing old grammar books because grammar used to have more active precedence in prior years, especially in English courses.  Now, it’s more about writing, but how can one write well without knowing how to put words together?  It’s like requiring a person to cook without showing them where the spices are in the rack.

Usually old grammar books are a snore and a half.  I was proved wrong. The first chapter “Language and Meaning” introduction floored me with its eloquence:

Modern man lives in a world of words, and the kind of world he lives in depends to a surprisingly large extent on the words that he uses and hears. Words can make or prevent wars, solemnize marriages or invalidate them, form constitutions or destroy them, sell shoddy or superior products or ideas, justify man’s worst actions or express his highest ideals. Because of the immense power of language, or even a few words, advertisers pay large sums for the best phrase or slogan or jingle, and no responsible statesman feels free to depart from the letter of his carefully prepared speech. Lawyers may spend hours in court trying to fix the meaning of a single word, and one of the chief functions of our Supreme Court is interpreting the words of the law of the land.

I am considering opening my initial grammar session with this.  Words and their meaning are so important.  How they are portrayed is essential, and so it is essential we know the rules of the road. More good stuff:

Since language is so important, it is strange that in our society more people have a reasonably accurate idea of how an automobile works and how to handle it than of how their native language works and how to handle it.  Even poor drivers know what the accelerator and the steering wheel and even the brake are for, and have some knowledge of the relationship between the cylinders and the gasoline and the spark. They can use road maps to drive a car from New York to San Francisco and can arrive at Sand Francisco without difficulty.

Okay, when this book was written  cars and traveling was probably simpler. However, the analogy remains that people can learn to navigate a car down the road better than they can constructing a sentence.  Why?

For one thing, [students] have often been led to accept and to follow uncritically a large number of rules for the writing of “correct” English. Suppose we look, for example, at some of these “rules.”

1. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Must we always say, “On which chair do you wish me sit?” and never “Which chair do you want me to sit on?” Of course not.

2. “Don’t use contractions.” Many English teachers have written this as a comment on themes. Are the teachers using incorrect English?

3. “Avoid slang.” Does this mean that a sports writer or a person writing on jazz must avoid all use of slang?

4. “Never begin a sentence with but or and.” Never? But we are doing it at this very moment.

5. “Always use a comma between two independent clauses joined by and, but, for, or, nor.” In “I was there and he wasn’t,” what good would a comma after “there” do? Probably none at all.
6.”Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate.” If this is always true, why do so many able writers–Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, to name just a few–frequently write sentences that are incomplete, and why do such sentences into English texts as models of style?

That came out of 1949!  I so applaud how the Birks poke at the conventions of stuffiness. My students come up with the above observations all the time! Here is one of the stellar gems of reflection:

Language has been called “the dress of thought”; like dress it needs to be appropriate. Formality and a certain type of correctness are sometimes necessary and desirable, but for everyday expression (written and spoken) a less formal language is usually appropriate, and a different and less formal standard of correctness apples.

All I can say is: Exactly!

The rest of the book is divided up sections of use: Conventions and Meaning; Exercising Intelligent Choice; Developing an Effective Style; Good Paragraphs; Language in Action plus Some Everyday Uses of English.

I think I will settle in with this as my primer for returning to school.  This fall begins the focus on Common Core Standards and last year as I piloted the ninth grade curriculum it became more than apparent that students didn’t give much credence to grammar and were often perplexed by it.  Maybe I can stretch out that car analogy since many of my freshmen will be driving by the end of the year *I always tell them to warn me when they get their permits-jk, jk*: “Hey kiddos, if you can read and memorize the driver’s ed manual in order to pass your test, I know you can do the same with grammar!”

Wait–I know. I will morph the sagacity of this little grammar tome with the unequivocal wisdom of The Beatles:

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Yeah. Put your pedal to the metal as you commit to your commas.

Then again, maybe I’ll just fall back on the help of Schoolhouse Rocky because, as you know, Knowledge is Power:

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3 thoughts on “Understanding and Using English

  1. As a commaphobic, I truly enjoyed your post! Gerri

    • I finished the book over the weekend and have all kinds of notes on it. I wish I could order a copy for a textbook. It’s only 60+ old, but is good grammar instruction ever out of date?

  2. I’m working on it.

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