Last week I read a sentence about grammar that I'm still puzzling over.
The sentence appeared at the end of a New York Times review of two grammar books for children, The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can't Manage Without Apostrophes! by Lynne Truss (who also wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves); and Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O'Conner (who also wrote Woe Is I).
Reviewer Ann Hodgman liked the O'Conner book and disliked the Truss book. She summed up with this paragraph:
Here’s a problem neither Truss nor O’Conner addresses: People who care about punctuation and good grammar don’t misuse them. People who don’t care won’t care. Children who like to read will pick up good grammar automatically. Children who don’t like to read are not going to pick up books about grammar unless someone forces them. And if you want to force a child to read a grammar book ... well, I don’t know what to tell you.
I've highlighted the sentence that gave me pause. For more than a week I've been asking myself: Do children who like to read really "pick up grammar automatically"? Does immersion in books translate into flawless grammar?
In one sense, of course, the question is silly. Long before they begin reading, children have mastered the basic structures of grammar. A three-year-old child whose first language is English knows that "The sky is blue" and "Is the sky blue?" make sense, while "Sky blue the is" does not.
Good written grammar (and punctuation, which is really Lynne Truss's hobbyhorse) is a different issue. So back to my question: Do children absorb and reproduce the principles of correct usage simply from reading good writing?
Here's my own take on it. I was an early and avid reader. I even read--and enjoyed--the grammar books that my father brought home from his community-college English classes. (They had very amusing illustrations.) And from the age at which I could grasp a pencil, I also loved to write--stories, plays, poems, songs, diary entries. But I didn't "pick up good grammar automatically." Well into my college years I still made many of the usage errors that plague beginning writers: dangling modifiers, subject-verb agreement confusion, and so on.
I didn't understand how English sentences were assembled until I learned to diagram them in junior high school. I didn't learn the subjunctive case--didn't even know it existed--until I studied high school Spanish. (Yet another benefit of foreign-language instruction.) I didn't master the finer points of usage until I apprenticed on the copy desk of my college newspaper, where more experienced editors helped me identify them.
Here's the thing: I didn't find any of this instruction onerous or boring. And I don't think I was particularly unusual. Sentence-diagramming gets a bad rap nowadays, but I and nearly everyone I know who actually learned it thought it was fun--a series of puzzles to be solved. Mastering the rules that lead to greater clarity in communication gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and even relief. I didn't have to invent my own rules; I simply had to learn the existing ones.
Everyone acknowledges that if we want to play basketball, or chess, or Worlds of Warcraft, we need to learn their rules. When we learn geometry we memorize axioms. Why is that such a hard sell with the rules of English? Communication is perhaps the most important game we play, the most crucial calculus we perform; it follows that we need some rules to guide us.
And--here's the rub, I think--we also need English teachers who find grammar and grammar instruction fun and beautiful and rewarding rather than a grim chore.
What about you? Did you learn grammar by osmosis, by rote, by enthusiastic study, or by trial and error? Do you think grammar can--or should--be taught? Write a comment and let us know.