Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar
(Oxford University Press)
US: Jun 2017
The word ‘grammar’ produces instant groans. I’m a teacher, and I teach English, so I have heard those groans too often. It’s not just my students, either. At the barber or at the bar, it never fails that if someone finds out my profession, the instant reaction is some form of grammar hate.
I’m no grammar apologist, either. The teaching and testing of grammar in American schools is some special kind of mess. It’s like holding water. You just can’t get a grip. That’s where David Crystal’s new book Making Sense: the Glamorous Story of English Grammar comes in. Crystal attempts to demystify the language for the reader as well as posit a more logical approach to the teaching and learning of grammar.
Crystal is just the writer to tackle the task. He has been working in the field of linguistics since the early ‘60s. He has published at least 100 books, including such heady titles as The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, The Disappearing Dictionary: A Treasury of Lost English Dialects, and The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation. The Guardian calls him “the foremost writer and lecturer on the English language.” Basically, he has the credentials.
More importantly, though, he is grounded in reality. Many of his books are written for the regular citizen, not for the haughty wordsmith sitting in some dusty university office. His goal is not to flex his language knowledge, but to help clean up all the mess that prescriptive grammar teaching has caused.
The book begins with his daughter. Crystal wants the reader to understand that the English language is not as complicated as we may think, and he illustrates this by tracing the language development of his daughter from birth to her early school years. He follows her from her discovery of nouns and verbs to the eventual discovery of the magical ‘and’, all the while explaining the rumblings in that little brain to the less-studied reader. This ‘one-at-at-time’ approach to linguistic analysis guides the reader towards a deep understanding of language from the bottom up, and it’s a refreshing alternative to the typical grammar handbook.
Also, during this half of the book, he interjects with ‘interludes’ that focus on the basic history of grammar, from the etymology of the word ‘sentence’ to the Latin roots of grammar study. All of this information is fairly interesting, but nothing new is being presented just yet.
The book takes a turn towards the revelatory when Crystal begins to delve into his philosophy of teaching and learning. He states his dislike of the prescriptive approach, so hated for turning language learning into a lifeless minefield of red pens: “People were being advised to speak and write in ways that bore little relation to English linguistic reality.” One classic example would be the prohibition of ending a sentence with a preposition, which he details in the cheekily titled chapter, “Up with which we will not put.” He makes himself quite clear: there are some legitimate rules to grammar, but some of the ‘rules’ we have been taught are essentially class signifiers and can inhibit a writer’s style. Also, simply put, some of the rules just don’t make logical sense.
Crystal believes that this legacy of prescriptive grammar teaching and learning has left language study in ruins. People have an aversion to grammar, but he sees the beauty in it himself. So, he asks, “How must a mindset be changed? By showing that grammar is full of topics that are intriguing and inviting. I don’t just mean grammarians. I mean to anyone.” His answer is simple enough: Explanations. It’s a movement in education that has been coming to the forefront for years. Students now learn a rule or strategy and then attempt to break down that rule or strategy to see why is exists, whereas in the past it was ‘learn the rule and live by it… no questions.’
One example he specifically focuses on is the passive and active voice. With the prescriptive approach to grammar, students are explicitly told to avoid passive construction, but one scan through the bookshelves of a library will show you that the passive voice is used often by some of the most respected writers in history. How could this be true? These linguistic explorations, these ‘explanations’ as Crystal call them, “…they give grammar its glamour.”
Crystal is on point here: turning language study into a debate gives power to the student. Giving power turns into engagement. Engagements leads to focus, and focus leads to better understanding. Wouldn’t it be great if students didn’t fall asleep during class anymore, but demanded classes in linguistics? Crystal’s work brings such a teacher’s dreams a little bit closer to reality.
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