Told You So!

Says the Washington Post this week: "[G]rammar instruction is reemerging slowly."

And from sun-dappled seats in some nearby home for retired grammarians there rises a croak of exaltation. Told you so.

It was a while ago they told us so. The era of personal and cultural liberation had dawned, and the exhortation of the moment was "Do your own thing." Grammar was structure, and who needed that when the quest was for Personal Authenticity and an end to the war in Vietnam? Devil take the rules and the hindmost! Let it all hang out!

And so it came to pass that — as noted on Page 1 of the Post — "Nationwide the Class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996" — when "the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance."

Looks like Johnny just don’t write so good no more: bad grammar, bad syntax and such like. But now there’s what might be called the Grammar Recovery movement, as exemplified, the Post tells us, by Mike Greiner, at Westfield High School, near Dulles International Airport, who teaches advanced placement English with admirable rigidity as to the rules of grammar.

Rules! A largely undemocratic concept, as embodying ideals of form and shape, when modern people know there are no ideals, just reflexes. Greiner is teaching rules: the rightness of some things, the wrongness of other things. Hooray!

I teach university-level writing — and to some pretty sharp kids. Many, I find, didn’t get what they needed from the adults who taught them grammar with — let us say — less than the diligence employed in my own school, half a century ago, by Anna Belle Kiber and Rowena Wilks, of blessed memory.

During the past few decades, pedagogical negligence has allowed chickweed and clover to take over the grammatical garden. Where do you put commas? What’s a compound sentence? What’s a dangling participle? A misplaced modifier? A subordinate clause? When do you use the subjunctive? And how? As for diagramming sentences — showing pictorially how adjectives relate to nouns and nouns to verbs and every part of the sentence to every other part — my students tell me they got a little of that, but not nearly as much as they could use now. "Oh, Mr. Murchison," exclaimed one of them a few years ago, "we weren’t taught!"

And should they have been? Oh, yes. For certain. A story, an essay, a column, a letter, a blog post (where long enough) is a piece of architecture. Put the windows too high or too low, or mangle the design, and no one can see in — which is what the writer wants readers to do: see inside the house of ideas. Here he has led them; he wants to show them something.

The rules of grammar enhance — no, they make possible — communication and understanding. People have worked them over for centuries, figuring out through insight and experience what works best and what doesn’t work at all. You follow the rules to keep the house from falling in on itself.

Rules can take on a purely historical flavor: But we’ve always done it this way! Correct, and sometimes you have to do it a different way to account for changed circumstances. On the other hand, the rule-lessness of recent decades is no answer. It confuses rather than clarifies, drags down when it ought to lift up. That’s why examples such as those Mr. Greiner, of suburban Washington, D.C., sets for his fortunate students are great fun to read about. Inspiring, as well. Told us so, they did — all those grammatical purists. Told us that in grammar, as in life, there’s right and there’s wrong, and the sooner we learn the difference, the faster we can get on with expressing ourselves. Wasn’t that what inspired the murder of grammar three decades ago — the quest for self-expression? We’re back, mysteriously, wonderfully, to Square One.