Many Americans believe that apes can be taught to speak in sign language. In the movie the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an orangutan that had been a “circus ape” could converse in American Sign Language, even though he had not yet undergone the intelligence-boosting transformation. In reality, Homo sapiensis the only living species that can really talk, whether in an oral language or in ASL. You can train some animals, such as apes or parrots, to give certain kinds of gestures or vocalizations in response to certain prompts. Yet unlike practically any human toddler, apes and parrots can never hold real conversations. Why can children converse whereas chimpanzees and orangutans and parrots cannot? It all boils down to grammar. Human beings can grasp it, and other animals cannot.
The ability to learn grammatical concepts seems to be hard-wired into the human nervous system. Nearly all young children can grasp grammatical principles and use them to generate meaningful sentences in the language that is being spoken around them and to them. In the 1960s, some educators interpreted that fact to mean that we need not teach grammar in school. Unfortunately, their efforts to suppress the teaching of grammar have had disastrous consequences that have extended beyond the obvious decline in verbal SAT scores. That’s because the study of grammar lays the groundwork for the disciplines that make civilized discussions possible. Humanism and the Enlightenment grew out of these disciplines. If we really want to promote humanism or even just democracy, we’ll have to put the grammar back in grammar school.
Grammar is one of the studies that were included in the ancient liberal arts curriculum. The Roman philosopher Seneca explained that these studies were called liberal because they were considered appropriate for free men (as opposed to slaves). The classical liberal arts curriculum consisted of seven subjects. The three verbal arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were called the trivium. That word gave rise to the word trivial, which originally referred to things that needed no explanation because any educated person would know them. The four arts of number (mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music) were called the quadrivium.
Grammar is the prerequisite for the study of logic, which in turn is the prerequisite for the study of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion. Logic and rhetoric are the disciplines that make it possible for human beings to reason with each other. The ability to use words and logic for the purpose of persuasion is uniquely human, which is probably why Aristotle defined man as the rational animal. When human beings cannot reason with each other, their disagreements tend to degenerate into name-calling and hair-pulling rather than leading to enlightenment or productive problem-solving.
The liberal arts were cultivated in ancient Athens because they facilitate a form of government that the Athenians called democracy, which meant rule by the people. Since then, the liberal arts have generally been valued in societies with a democratic or republican form of government. They have generally been withheld from people whose participation in political decision-making was unwanted.
In Northern Italy during the Renaissance, the liberal arts were supplemented by the humanities (studia humanitatis), including poetry, history, and philosophy. Like the liberal arts, the humanities were cultivated because they promoted pleasant and productive conversations among the people who were expected to take part in political decision-making. Today, one would also need some grounding in the natural and social sciences to participate meaningfully in political decision-making.
The word humanism originally meant devotion to the humanities and literary culture. Humanism as embraced by the modern humanist movement is a philosophy that is based on reason, which means that it depends heavily on the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. If you want to promote humanism, you must support the teaching of the liberal arts, starting with grammar.
To understand why grammar is so important, you must first understand what grammar is. Grammar is the study of how words and their component parts are combined to form sentences. Words can be classified into eight categories called the parts of speech: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. A word can also be described by the role that it is playing within a particular sentence. For example, a noun may be the subject of a verb or a direct or indirect object of the verb.
Logic is the study of arguments, which in turn are made up of propositions, which are sentences of a particular kind. To analyze arguments—and even just to recognize that an argument is being made—you must be able to parse, which means to analyze the parts of speech and grammatical relationships of the words within a sentence. In other words, you must have already mastered some of the basic principles of grammar.
When I say that chimpanzees can’t use grammar, I don’t mean that the chimpanzees say “he don’t” instead of “he doesn’t.” That sort of thing is a difference in dialect, which is largely a matter of geography and ethnicity. When I say that chimpanzees cannot use grammar, I mean that they have no way of expressing subject-verb-object relationships. They have no way of indicating which noun is the subject of a verb, and which noun is the direct or indirect object. For example, if I befriended Tarzan’s friend Cheeta the chimpanzee, I might be able to teach him signs for Laurie, Cheeta, and banana. If I did so, I could probably get him to generate strings of signs such as the following: “Banana, Cheeta, Laurie, banana, give.” From context, I would probably interpret those gestures to mean “Laurie, please give Cheeta a banana.” Yet no chimpanzee has ever shown the ability to express grammatical case. Thus, they have no way to express the difference between “Laurie gave Cheeta a banana” and “Cheeta gave Laurie a banana.”
If Cheeta does make signs such as “banana banana Cheeta give,” I might guess that he wants me to give him a banana. Likewise, if a dog paws at her feed bowl, she probably wants her dinner. Both animals may be communicating with me, or at least trying to influence my behavior, but I don’t believe that either is truly using language.
In one of his The Far Side cartoons, Gary Larson showed a scientist who had created a dog-to-English translator. It showed that a dog’s barks really meant “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Thus, all of a dog’s “words” are all the same part of speech: interjections, which are utterances that have no grammatical connection to the rest of the sentence.
Nouns refer to persons, places, things, or ideas. Verbs refer to actions or states of being. Grammatical case deals with the relationship that a noun has with a particular verb in a particular sentence, such as whether the noun is the subject, direct object, or indirect object of the verb. In the sentence “Laurie gave Cheeta a banana,” Laurie is the subject, Cheeta is the indirect object, and the banana is the direct object. All human languages, including sign languages, have ways of expressing which noun is the subject, which is the indirect object, and which is the direct object. In English, we usually use word order and function words like to. Other languages, such as Latin, use word endings.
No modern apes or parrots have ever figured out a way to express subject-verb-object relationships. Nor have apes or parrots ever figured out how to express the tense or aspect of a verb. Tense refers to whether the action or state of being is in the past, present, or future. Grammatical aspect deals with other kinds of timing, such as whether the action is continuous or intermittent, and whether it is completed or ongoing as of a certain point in time. For example, Cheeta would have no way of saying that I used to give him bananas but that I don’t give him bananas any more.
Chimpanzees have no way of expressing the mood of a verb. If Cheeta made signs for Laurie, give, Cheeta, and banana, I’d naturally assume that he meant, “Laurie, please give Cheeta a banana.” In that sentence, the verb is in the imperative mood. In contrast, the verb in “Laurie gives Cheeta bananas” is in the indicative mood, as well as being in the simple present tense. In the sentence “I would gladly pay you Tuesday if you gave me a banana today,” pay is in the conditional mood (as indicated by the modal auxiliary would) and gave is in the subjunctive.
No chimpanzee has ever been able to use pronouns, and Tarzan himself seemed to have trouble with them. When Tarzan first meets Jane in the movie Tarzan of the Apes, Jane says “Thank you for saving me!” and points to herself. Tarzan then points at Jane and says, “Me!” Tarzan has trouble figuring out why “me” means Jane when Jane is speaking but “me” means Tarzan when Tarzan is speaking. Pronouns are function words that stand in for another noun. Pronouns have no meaning of their own. They take their meaning from their context.
Modification is another important grammatical concept. To modify means to change, and a modifier changes the meaning of something else in the sentence. There are two main kinds of modifiers: adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns. Adjectives answer such questions as which one? what kind? and how many? Adverbs can modify verbs (including infinitives and participles), adjectives, other adverbs, prepositions, phrases, clauses, or whole sentences. Adverbs answer questions like how, when, where, why, or how often?
Sometimes, a string of words can be used as a modifier. Often, this string consists of a noun phrase connected to some other element in the sentence by a function word called a preposition. Prepositional phrases can behave as adjectives or adverbs. Sometimes, they can change from adverbial to adjectival if they are in the wrong place in the sentence. I teach people to avoid putting a potentially adjectival prepositional phrase after a noun unless they really want it to modify that noun:
- This product is available from Acme distributors in 1‑gallon jugs.
But the product, not the distributor, is in jugs:
- This product is available in 1‑gallon jugs from Acme distributors.
Sometimes, even a clearly adverbial phrase can end up modifying the wrong thing if you put it in the wrong place. Consider the following sentence, which I read in a newspaper article years ago:
- She decided to stop having sex after going to church.
The writer meant that the woman had decided to abstain completely from sex because of a religious conversion experience. However, the sentence as it was written brought to my mind the song “Never on a Sunday,” in which a prostitute explains that Sunday is her day off. Moving the prepositional phrase “after going to church” into a different position in the sentence clarifies the meaning:
- She decided, after going to church, to stop having sex.
- After going to church, she decided to stop having sex.
The problem in that sentence stems from the fact that the adverbial prepositional phrase “after going to church” could potentially modify decided or having.
As a technical editor, I have had to deal with many manuscripts written by people who seemed completely unaware that word order could have that kind of effect on meaning. Some modifiers were merely misplaced—i.e., in the wrong position in the sentence. Others were dangling, which means that the word that the modifier was intended to modify was missing from the sentence:
- Walking to school today, my book fell into the mud.
The book was not walking. I was walking, but the word I is missing from the sentence. Also, the sentence doesn’t explain how or why the book fell. A good writer would clarify those issues, if they are important:
- While I was walking to school today, I accidentally dropped my book into the mud.
I’ve already mentioned nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and interjections. I left conjunctions for last because they are the part of speech whose role in logic is most obvious. Most of the words that we think of as logical operators (and, or, but, if, then) are conjunctions. They are used to connect words, phrases, and clauses. Conjunctive adverbs (such as however and therefore) can also be used to connect clauses and sentences. Careful use of conjunctive adverbs helps you make your writing coherent.
Already in this essay, I’ve introduced the eight parts of speech and described a few of the most common problems that arise when writers don’t pay proper attention to sentence structure. The underlying principles are not hard. I learned them in seventh grade.
After working as a technical editor for several years, I realized that good writers understand these basic principles of sentence structure and that bad writers do not. People who do not understand these principles do not understand why their writing is bad. They may not even realize that their writing is bad. To help them improve their writing, I have to teach them the basic principles of grammar. I cannot imagine how anyone could teach writing without teaching these principles. Whenever I have taught these principles to people who couldn’t write particularly well, their writing improved dramatically. I suspect that their thinking skills also improved.
Bad writing is a serious problem for a scientist. When a bad writer writes about something commonplace, the readers can often use their common sense and preexisting knowledge to figure out what the writer meant. However, readers would find it far more difficult to decipher bad writing about a subject that is unfamiliar and hard to understand. Thus, they would find it hard to learn about a complicated scientific subject from something that is badly written. Yet a poor grasp of grammar causes problems that are even worse than bad writing. As one of my colleagues told me,
In editing the work of scientists and physicians, I have often noted that the writers who do not have a command of English are the ones most likely to make logical errors in the design of their studies and in the interpretation of their results.
Eventually, I got such a reputation for helping people improve their writing that I was asked to write a grammar column for the American Medical Writers Association Journal. While doing research for my grammar column, I found out why American schoolchildren have been receiving so little in the way of grammar instruction. Back in the 1960s, an influential faction within the teaching profession declared that formal instruction in grammar does not help children learn to write better and could actually have a harmful effect on their writing because it would take time away from instruction and practice in actual composition. So what happened after grammar was stripped from the curriculum? In 1963, the verbal SAT scores began a sharp, 16-year decline that was not explained by demographics. (Part of the decline was evidently due to the “dumbing down” of textbooks in the preceding years.)
I think that the decision to stop teaching grammar in grammar school was foolish. It was as foolish as the decision to have young children learn to read by memorizing whole words, rather than by learning to sound words out letter by letter. Some of the harms that have resulted from these foolish educational policies are easy to measure. As Rudolf Flesch explained in his 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read, the whole-word methods of reading instruction predictably led to severe epidemics of dyslexia and functional illiteracy. Later on, the decision to abandon grammar instruction predictably led to problems with reading comprehension and made it far more difficult for children to learn foreign languages. Yet I think that some of the worst effects are more subtle. They involve a breakdown of civility.
Many people seem to think that the word civility just means politeness. Thus, they would imagine that it means refusing to discuss politics or religion. In short, they think that it means a turning away from democracy. Yet the word civility originally meant training in the liberal arts. It meant training in the disciplines that enable one to have productive and even pleasant conversations about sensitive topics, such as religion and politics. It means a cultivation of the disciplines that are necessary for democracy.
I’ve been told that the ugliness of our current political climate results from a “cultural divide” between left and right. Yet from my perspective, the problem of irrationality and incivility does not seem to be limited to any particular segment of the political spectrum. Fortunately, the solution to this problem is simple. It starts with grammar lessons.