The Rules of Grammar

Wilbur and Charlotte

Languages change as time goes by, and they get simpler, not more complex. Look at the elaborate phraseology in Shakespeare and Dickens and even Mark Twain, and you’ll see what I mean. They’re often difficult for the modern reader.

I worked at a company that creates certification tests for teachers of history, among others, and we were not allowed, by law, to include excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution, or the speeches of Lincoln, in these examinations — too complex.

Maybe it’s just as well, because the elaborate grammatical constructions in these documents are easily misinterpreted.

As our language simplifies, the rules change, for grammar and spelling as well. Two Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, come to mind. The word Socratic still begins with a capital letter, but not the word platonic, which is now lower-case.

I believe that’s because the adjective platonic has acquired a meaning that goes beyond the historical figure in question, though it would be easy to argue that the Socratic method has done the same.

In one edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, thought to be the final arbiter of such questions, there is a note that states that grammarians have actually come to blows over the possessive form of Jesus and Moses. Is it Jesus’ or Jesus’s?

And if the CMS is the final arbiter, why do we need a new edition every year?

So grammar, and spelling, are fluid, and in many cases there is no one correct answer. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a grammatical error.

To me, a grammatical error is one that obscures the writer’s meaning and leaves it open to multiple interpretations, except, of course, in cases where this is the writer’s intent. But for that you need a poetic license, or at least a poetic learner’s permit.

Writers of prose are supposed to focus on one unmistakable meaning. Writers of poetry try to evoke as many meanings as they can.

Other errors will indicate that a writer does not undertand the device she or he is using. The one that causes me the most problems is writers who open a sentence with a participial phrase: “Turning the corner onto Main Street, the bells began to toll.”

The bells weren’t turning any corners. It should read, “As we turned the corner onto Main Street, the bells began to toll.” See what I mean? Most grammatical lapses are easy to correct, but this one always involves rewriting the entire sentence, so it tends to be a real pain in the ass.

If only there were a tiny little book that you could read in a few hours that would put you on the same level with unversity professors in the field.

But there is! It’s called The Elements of Style and it was written by E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and many other wonderful works, in conjunction with some guy named Strunk, who was one of those grammarians duking it out over the possessive of Moses and Jesus.

This lovely little book will give you all you need to know to identify what’s debatable and what is just plain wrong.

By the way, did you know that grammatical instruction in schools has been shown to be completely useless? It has been demonstrated again and again across America. Students grasp the concepts far more quickly if they read Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln, or, for that matter, Stephen King.