Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Not just for nerds: learning to embrace your grammar

There's something undeniably geeky about celebrating an occasion like National Grammar Day. The idea of devoting a single day to grammar sounds like something that would attract librarians, pedants, and those people who troll comment sections to correct other commenters' sentences while throwing down the classic misspelled Internet catchphrase, "Your an idiot."

It's fun to pay tribute to grammar once a year, but we shouldn't elevate it to the status of an uber-nerdy subject that only a few can fully appreciate. Grammar is the bedrock of every language. It's not the whole mountain, but it's the substructure that supports the rich soil of an immense and varied lexicon, connected by numerous veins of communication and interplay among the individuals who use it every day.

We don't always see it, but it's an essential part of our lives, and it's something we all can enjoy, even when we aren't aware that we're using it. Even the text-happy teenagers some teachers complain about, whose written communications have devolved into a panoply of shortcuts and alternative spellings, are dependent on their readers' ability to decipher the underlying structure. Perhaps the entire system will break down at some point, but when it does, a new grammar will have to emerge for people to use in understanding each other.

When you watch a spider build its web, there's something awe-inspiring about watching a tiny creature superimpose a spiral on a set of lines radiating from a central spot, with the whole structure tethered to some unlikely combination of stems and leaves or the drafty corner of a garage ceiling. Writers employ the same set of techniques. Long novels and short poems, even those that seem free-form in conception, all build on an underlying order that allows almost infinite variations in the outcome.

Grammar is one important element that distinguishes the human writer from the hypothetical team of monkeys that would eventually randomly produce the works of Shakespeare, if given enough time. Our time to transmit ideas to each other falls far short of the eternity that would be needed for such a random feat, and our knowledge of sentence structure and of the different roles that various words play in a sentence helps us get to the point quickly, with precision, and occasionally with great elegance.

Anyone can learn more about grammar, and that learning doesn't have to take the form of lessons or reading prescriptive blog posts. Take pleasure in reading something substantial offline, and you will take in the form of language as well as the content. Learning a foreign language, even just the basics, can heighten your awareness of the way you put words together in your own language. What's more, it can broaden your sense of what it's possible to say, since ideas themselves take on a different cast of meaning when expressed differently.

It also helps to try not to see the whole subject as a system of arbitrary rules laid down by others. They are simply the explanations we have gathered for the ways we have come to use language by instinct. They have been standardized, but they are also subject to change over time; that is to say, our grammar is not our grandmas' grammar.

The ropes and tethers of your substructure aren't the whole story; they're just a beginning. But they are wonderful things to have within your grasp when you want to weave something magical, even when you choose to depart from grammatical norms. While we're paying tribute to grammar today, let's embrace it as an essential part of how we relate to one another through both the written and the spoken word.

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