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Minneapolis Star Tribune: "A gateway to the structure and beauty of language."

Date: May 31 2010

What is the point of grammar?

In Muriel Barbery's novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," 12-year-old Paloma is taken aback when her literature teacher says, "The point is to make us speak and write well."

To offer this explanation to "a group of adolescents who already know how to speak and write is," in Paloma's opinion, "like telling someone it is necessary to read a history of toilets in order to pee and poop."

Paloma doesn't think her teacher's explanation is wrong exactly; she thinks it "grossly inept."

"We already knew how to use and conjugate a verb long before we knew it was a verb," she reflects. To her precocious mind, grammar lessons are "a sort of synthesis after the fact ... a source of supplemental details concerning terminology."

More than that, "Grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means. It provides access to the structure and beauty of language. It's not just some trick to help people get by in society."

How do you feel about grammar? Is it merely a set of rules that make you look good if you follow them and embarrass you if you don't?

For Paloma, "Grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak or read or write, you can tell if you've said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully ... you peel back the layers to see how it is all put together [and] you say to yourself, 'Look how well made this is, how well constructed it is, how solid and ingenious, rich and subtle.'"

One often hears the contrary argument. Why study English when I already know how to speak? Why study writing when I already know how to write? As long as you understand me, what does it matter if I follow the rules?

There's nothing wrong with using words pragmatically to conduct business or seal the deal, but is there a place in your everyday life for beauty? Do you, like Paloma, "get completely carried away just knowing that there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility"?

If creating beauty is not your first thought when you arrive for work on Monday morning, consider what is likely to satisfy you at the end of the day. When you look back on a lifetime of work, will you be proud that you nudged the boulder a little higher up the hill, or that you did so with dignity, style and grace?

Isn't that what we all want in the end? Something more than tricks to get by? Something of more enduring value?

Perhaps we would do well to remember Paloma's concluding thought on grammar: "Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language."

By Stephen Wilbers