Grammar is the study of how words are altered and combined to form meaningful sentences. Thus, grammar is the thin, bright line dividing Homo sapiens from all other living species. You can try to teach sign language to a chimpanzee or gorilla. You can get a parrot to utter sounds that mimic human language. You can even get those animals to give particular kinds of responses to particular kinds of prompts. But no ape or parrot has ever been able to hold anything like a human conversation. The problem is that the animals never grasp the underlying grammatical principles.
In this video, I explain the basic principles of grammar and show you how to diagram sentences:
What Apes and Parrots Cannot Understand
Like many people, I was taken in at first by the stories that chimpanzees and gorillas were being trained to speak American Sign Language. Then, I noticed something odd. None of the ape languages studies were being run by deaf people, or even the children of deaf people. The people who were running the experiment could not really speak ASL themselves. Thus, they were not really qualified to decide whether the apes’ “signs” were language or gibberish. Eventually, Herbert Terrace, who had directed a project involving a young chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, admitted something important: Nim could mimic some signs, but he could not make sentences. Note that Nim Chimpsky had been named in mockery of the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, who had predicted that attempts to teach other species to use language would fail. As it turns out, Chomsky was right. Chomsky reasoned that if animals could use language, they would use language. You cannot expect that animals are waiting for us to teach them language, any more than you can expect to find an island with flightless birds that are just waiting for human beings to teach them how to fly.
When I say that apes cannot understand grammar, I don’t mean that they say “he seen” instead of “he saw.” I don’t mean that they are using double negatives, such as complaining that they “can’t get no satisfaction.” I mean that they cannot make sentences.
Why can’t apes or chimps make sentences? They cannot grasp subject-verb-object relationships. A chimpanzee might learn that people offer him a drink of water when he makes a particular gesture. He might then use that gesture in order to get people to give him water. Chimps are smart. But no chimpanzee has ever had an experience like what young Helen Keller had at the water pump (as dramatized in the movie The Miracle Worker), when she realized that a particular series of hand gestures stood for the concept of water, and that things in general have names. No chimpanzee has ever dragged its teacher around, demanding to know the names of things, as young Helen Keller did.
You can train a chimp to use a particular gesture to beg for bananas. But chimpanzees have never figured out how to express which noun is the subject of a verb (i.e., who is giving the banana), which noun is the direct object (i.e., what is being given), or the indirect object (i.e., to whom the subject is giving the direct object). Nor can they express the tense and aspect of a verb (i.e., when the action happened, and how long it took). Nor can they express the mood of a verb (e.g,. the difference between a statement of fact, a question, a command, or a hypothetical statement). So a chimpanzee can never express the difference between “Laurie, please give me a banana” and “Laurie gave me a banana yesterday.” Nor could they express the idea, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a banana today.” Practically any kindergartner can easily express those ideas.
Grammar Is Uniquely Human
No matter how hard you try to teach a parrot or an ape to use some sort of language, they always fail to grasp the basic principles of grammar. That’s why they cannot talk.
In contrast, nearly all human beings learn the basic rules of their native language in early childhood. That’s why practically all human beings learn to talk, and why all human societies have language. If you were to isolate a group of young children who had no language, they would create their own language for use among themselves. It would be unethical to do an experiment like that, but the process of language creation was observed when Nicaragua established its first school for the deaf.
Young children seem to be “hard-wired” to learn language. They have an incredible ability to learn some rules of grammar through ordinary interactions with other people. Thus, many educators have argued that grammar lessons are at best a waste of time and may do more harm than good. This argument has been used to strip grammar out of the public grammar schools in the United States. The results of this neglect of grammar were predictably disastrous. That’s because the study of grammar helps you learn how to analyze your thoughts.
Why Do Bad Writers Write Badly?
As a technical editor, I have long known that many seemingly educated people are bad writers. I have seen bad writing from people who claim to have a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in English. From what I’ve seen, bad writing results from several common problems.
- Careless choice of words
- Subject-verb-object transactions that make no literal sense (e.g., the subject is not really “doing” that verb or “verbing” that direct object)
- Verb tenses that do not really match the timing of the actions being described
- Modifiers that are misplaced or dangling
- Problems with parallel structure
- Failure to use conjunctive adverbs to show how ideas are connected to each other
These are simple problems, and they are easy to solve. Over the years, I developed a simple method for turning bad writers into competent writers:
- I teach people how to make full use of a dictionary
- I review the eight parts of speech
- I teach people how to diagram sentences
- I give people a few pointers on word order
This method takes remarkably little of my time, but its results are quick, dramatic, and long-lasting. Most of the people I’ve tutored tell me that they were never taught these concepts in school. I believe them. Some really good editors have told me that they were not taught much about English grammar in K‑12. Instead, they learned about grammar through studying some highly inflected foreign language, such as Russian or German, in college.
Bad Writing Is a Sign of Bad Thinking
In his illuminating book The War Against Grammar, David Mulroy explains that the results of neglecting grammar go way beyond low test scores. The neglect of grammar has led to difficulties in thinking and communication:
- Poor writing skills
- Poor reading comprehension
- Difficulty in learning foreign languages
People who cannot analyze the structure of sentences have trouble understanding complicated sentences. As a result, they find it hard to understand or discuss complicated ideas. As a result, serious conversation becomes impossible and political discussions degenerate into tribalism and name-calling. After reading Mulroy’s book, I decided to expand the scope of my own book. Rather than writing a slim volume on how to write well, I wrote a 370-page book on how the suppression of the trivium in public education is undermining democracy, and what ordinary people can do to turn the tide.
How to Study the Trivium
You cannot really begin to study the liberal arts until you learn to read. As I will explain in more detail in the page on logic, you cannot begin to study logic until you learn some grammar. That’s because logic is the study of arguments, and arguments are built out of sentences of a particular kind. If you cannot recognize that kind of sentence, you cannot even begin to tell whether an argument is being made.
I’ve read many logic books. To my surprise, none of the grammar texts I have seen start off with a review of grammar. Any study of logic should start with an intensive course on grammar. You need that grounding in grammar before you can begin to study logic. After you understand the basic principles of logic, you can begin to study rhetoric. Rhetoric is considered the art of persuasion. However, it also helps you learn how to spot liars and how to make good decisions.