Part 1: introduction
What is Grammar?
Grammar comprises the rules and practices for combining words in order to form sentences. The sentence is the most basic structure for conveying meaningful and unambiguous thought. The rules and conventions of grammar govern the construction of sentences so that thoughts are meaningfully and unambiguously conveyed.
Why Learn Grammar?
We manage, without explicit knowledge of the rules and conventions of our language, to communicate rather well. In fact, we generally communicate well not only without an explicit knowledge of grammar, but even without correctly applying the rules of grammar. However, this is not the case in written communication, particularly in argumentative writing. This is so for a several reasons.
First, when we speak to another person, we are present to assess whether what we intend to communicate is actually understood. When we sense that we have been misunderstood, we can restate differently the thought in question. Or, for that matter, the listener can tell us that he or she has not understood what has been said. When we write, however, we do not have this opportunity. This is not to say that the writer must consider every possible way that his or her thoughts can be misunderstood and then write to avoid these, but there is a greater responsibility on the part of the writer to communicate his or her thoughts without ambiguity. In order to do this, an explicit understanding of grammar is needed.
Second, the nature of argumentative writing is such that clarity and precision are absolutely requisite. Because argumentative writing often relies on unintuitive, non-obvious, and unclear premises and concepts, it is vital that clarity and precision be maintained. More importantly, because argumentative writing asks the reader to adopt one belief or position over another (or, for that matter, a certain course of action), it is critical that we clearly express these positions and our reasons for them. An explicit understanding of grammar will aid in this. In fact, grammar is crucial to argumentation. Given the tendency to abandon grammatical patterns in speech (in part because of their difficulty, in part because of habit), oral argumentation is often frustrating and pointless. It is not that oral argumentation fails to persuade, it is that oral argumentation often fails to be coherent in the first place.
What exactly will we learn?
Here is what we will focus on learning in this class:
1. Basic grammatical categories and properties
2. Basic rules, with attention to common errors and stylistic matters
3. How to apply these categories and rules to analyze the structure and style of sentences
Our aim is very practical. While you must know the categories of grammar (memorize them?) in order for them to be useful, ultimately our aim is to change the way we look at sentences. In this respect what we are doing is very similar to what is done with learning logic. In Philosophy 205, for example, you learn a way of formally looking at arguments. My guess is that you do not see an argument now the same way you did before you studied logic. Even if you do not formally represent the arguments you encounter, you still see them differently and understand them better. I hope learning grammar (very quickly) will have this same effect on your writing.
Part of good, clear, precise, and ultimately effective writing (and argumentative writing) requires that you have total control over each sentence that you write. Learning grammar will give you the categories and rules with which to precisely formulate and improve your sentences, and ultimately clarify and improve your thinking. It will also give you confidence in your forming of sentences and a sense of how, in general, sentences work. Of course, it would be fairly inefficient if, in writing an essay, you thought through each sentence in terms of grammatical parts and rules before writing it. However, a knowledge of grammar will be quite useful in the revision of your papers. Where you sense that a sentence may be problematic, unclear, out of place, awkward, imprecise, ambiguous, and so forth, a knowledge of grammar will give you the ability to find and resolve the problem. Overtime, applying the principles of good writing will become habitual, and you will tend to write more effective sentences in the first instance.
We will look at the following areas:
2. Parts of Speech
12. Phrases and Clauses
14. Grammatical Analysis
A Note on Method
It is a subject of jokes that there are no grammatical rules that don’t have exceptions; indeed, these jokes appear to be factually based. The evolving nature of language, as well as the fact that grammar is partly descriptive (that is, it is a reflection of how people actually use language), means that the rules of grammar are evolutionary. In addition, we are learning grammar at an accelerated rate, and so we will not consider all distinctions and exceptions. All this means the following: in many cases we will encounter examples of language in which the distinctions and principles we have learned do not unambiguously apply. For example, we will learn how to analyze a sentence into its various parts. Some sentences, however, will admit of multiple analyses. One solution to this problem is to use examples in which these ambiguities do not arise. But then we would have to exclude much of the language that we frequently use and write. Another solution is to use “the real stuff,” but to realize in that there may be multiple (but not infinite) manners of analysis. This second approach seems preferable, and it is the course we will pursue in learning grammar.