Grammar Guerrilla: Grammar Is For Everyone

This tweet, which was published by Rhiannon Giles, who writes for the New York Times among other prestigious publications, appeared on March 3, 2022, National Grammar Day. There are three things to observe here. One has to do with grammar itself. The second has to do with fun and learning. The other has to do why she is fundamentally and even dangerously wrongheaded about who needs to learn grammar and why (or why virtue signaling is harmful).

First, her grammatical mistake. She wrote, “A good day to remember that while grammar can be fun…”. What she should have written is, “though grammar can be fun.” She was not signaling the passage of time. She was intending to signal a concessive: “Though x is the case, y is also the case.” She meant to concede the first clause while simultaneously asserting a complementary truth. Did you notice what I did there? I used while correctly. It signals the passage of time. “Joey whistled while he waited for the train to arrive.” While signals the passage of time. One thing is happening at the same time something else is happening. I understand that usage changes and that the abuse of while is widespread but that makes the abuse no less incorrect. That virtually no one, even academics, seem to know the meaning of “to beg the question,” does not make the abuse of that expression correct.

Second, grammar well taught can be fun but there are things to be learned that are hard work. Learning English well, especially as a second language, is hard work. One should not think that whatever is difficult is not to be attempted.

Third, her virtue signaling scold regard “ableism” etc should be repudiated by anyone who cares about the education of young people and the social mobility of those about whom she ostensibly cares. There is nothing  inherently ableist, racist, or classist about grammar. To suggest that good grammar belongs only to the able, the wealthy, or to any particular race (or that it is racist to learn or teach grammar) is nonsense and potentially damaging to the education of many young people. As a matter of fact and morals, good English does not belong to people who are able, of any particular race, class, or ability.

Her caveat is grounded in the unstated assumption that grammar is a mere convention, i.e., it is arbitrary and subject to deconstruction and therefore to insist on good grammar is the sign of privilege and potentially racist etc. This is not true. Sentences necessarily must have verbs, subjects, objects, and qualifiers. Languages vary in the way they express these relations but these relations are baked into the nature of things. Learning how to understand and express these relations well is what grammar helps us do.

As a practical matter, the ability to communicate accurately, clearly, and even elegantly is a predictor of success in many fields. Those who write badly, i.e., incoherently or ungrammatically, are not likely to succeed in any field that requires good communication. There is, in my experience, a strong correlation between the ability to think clearly and the ability to write clearly. Employers value employees and colleagues who are able to express themselves well.

It is true that it is easier to learn good grammar in better (e.g., more demanding) schools, which may be more expensive and to which people of a certain class may have easier access. It is also true, however, that good education has little to do with funding. It has mostly to do with self-discipline, which is free. Discipline is essential to education but it has almost disappeared from public school and it may well be that private schools are not far behind. That is a reflection of the state of the culture, which itself is a reflection of the state of the family in the West.

I submit that, given a library of about 300 well chosen books, a dry erase board, and basic supplies (paper and pencils) a cadre of dedicated, well educated teachers, with authority to discipline students, could produce outstanding high school graduates who, upon examination, could gain entrance into any university in the West. A substantial percentage of what, after Dewey is reckoned education is, in fact, a waste of time and energy.

It is easier to learn good grammar without a learning disability. It is also true that people with learning disabilities can learn to cope with and even overcome their disabilities to become successful students. Dyslexia occurs in approximately 20% of the population. Once diagnosed and addressed, students with dyslexia frequently go on to be academically and professionally successful.

It is more difficult to learn good grammar (or anything else) in poor schools or in schools with low standards (whether or not they are well funded) but the greater challenge for most students is not the condition of their schools and textbooks but the condition of the minds of their teachers. How well educated are our teachers? How prepared are they themselves to educate others? How much does the average public school teacher read? How intellectually curious is the average teachers college graduate? Does anyone really want to know the answer to these questions?

Despite my many attempts to learn to write well my education mostly failed me. Eventually, because I could read (thanks to my mother and my second grade teacher, who taught us phonics) I taught myself how to write an academic paper. I really only began to learn English grammar when I learned Greek and Latin. Then I saw the underlying structure of English, that it too has a nominatives, genitives, accusatives, and datives. If this last sentence makes no sense to you then it means that you too were robbed of a decent education. If you really want to learn how to write good English, learn Latin. Just as the radicals who destroyed the American education system eliminated memorization in favor of “enrichment,” so too they substituted “creative writing” for Latin and we are all stupider for it.

Grammar is not racist, ableist, classist or any other —istAnyone can learn grammar. Everyone should learn good grammar. If you struggle with grammar, writing, or learning please do not let the virtue-signalling Rhiannon Giles’ of the world convince you that you cannot or should not learn. You can. I did and I had to overcome a number of obstacles that I will not detail here. Since 1995 I have taught students who have come to class from many ethnicities, from a variety of economic and social backgrounds, and with a variety of learning styles. I have seen many of them transformed by giving themselves over to a rigorous, demanding, old-school approach to education that requires students to memorize Greek and Hebrew as part of introductory courses. Some of them have gone on to learn Latin and other ancient languages. Many of them have had to learn, for the first time, how to write a serious academic paper. It is not easy but can be done and it is being done. You can do it too.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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19 comments

  1. Missing a comma after “even academics” at the end of the second paragraph, but I will forgive that because of your entirely apt remarks concerning the widespread abuse of “to beg the question.”

    Count me as a member of the band of brothers and sisters who best learned his English grammar at the feet of his Latin and Greek teachers. An education in the classics pays enormous lifetime dividends.

    • Actually, in the same paragraph, the word “seems” should be used instead of “seem.” (It gets confused with the parenthetical phrase which contains a plural noun, instead of the preceding “one” which is a singular noun.)
      I would reword the sentence to “That virtually no one, even in academia, seems to know the meaning…”

    • Also missing one here, after ungrammatically: “Those who write badly, i.e., incoherently or ungrammatically are not likely to succeed…” I’m seeing that eliminating the second comma in a parenthetical phrase is becoming increasingly common. [sigh] Oh, well. Still a good article!

  2. This blog post reminds me of how our grandchildren stopped learning to read or write “in cursive” after or before third grade. I assume that nowadays they don’t even teach it at all. When the granddaughter was asked by her grandmother to help her in her business, it turned out that her grandmother had made all of her journal entries in cursive and her granddaughter could read none of it. So much for good grammar (of which cursive writing is a part, like it or not) and the “-ist” learning requirement by “old white men” whether this cocky millennial likes to hear about it or not.

  3. I learned about cases and tenses, etc, first in French lessons from my grandmother, and then in French and Latin at school. However, unlike you, Dr Clark, I didn’t tumble to it that English also has such things until we started being taught formal English grammar when I entered the second year at senior school!
    Semantic Case Roles is another subject I didn’t anticipate until I learned about them in Linguistics well into my adulthood.

  4. Scott,

    Thanks for your thoughts on language. Here are three of my thoughts.

    1. I have taught Greek every year since 1981 until my retirement this summer; in every introductory lecture, I always told the students that if nothing else, they would learn English grammar by studying Greek.
    2. When I finish writing my current work on The Law in Romans, I intend to write a Theology of Language (though I will entitle it something like “God’s Word and Our Words”).
    3. I am surprised that you permit that old rascal Frank Aderholdt to participate in this!

    Blessings in Christ (and to you, too, Frank),
    T. David

    • David,

      I didn’t know that you had retired. Congratulations! It’s the last sabbatical. I hope the Lord allows you to be restfully productive.

      I look forward to both works.

      Frank is the best isn’t he?

    • Dr. T. David
      Great to see you here and to hear that you are well. You’ll perhaps remember that I took Greek from you in the Fall of 1984 GCTS. I have told students for many years the same thing: I didn’t really know English Grammar until I took Greek. Now I’m teaching rhetoric at a Classical High School in Savannah. Although I’m older I’m not yet retired. Can’t wait to see your book on the theology of Language.
      Matthew Burt

  5. Finding a way to learn Latin is easier said than done. Forty-some years ago I decided I wanted to learn Latin in high school, because so much of our language is based on it and scientific names of animals are largely based on it. I can’t argue that I “tried all that hard” to learn it, but it simply wasn’t available in my high school or college (and I was working long hours to put myself through college and didn’t have ready time in my schedule to go off campus and take it elsewhere), and I can’t imagine it has become any easier to find since (except in homeschooling circles). I do still wish I had learned it–and am very happy for a junior-high English teacher who emphasized the diagramming of sentences and made it fun by giving us interesting and sometimes funny sentences–but language is simply not emphasized in America, Latin particularly.

    • American English’s equivalent of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

      Latin Americans, Latin Americans everywhere,
      More than the soul can reach,
      Latin Americans, Latin Americans everywhere,
      But none will Latin teach.

  6. Dennis S.
    April 12, 2022

    Your reference to knowing some Latin grammar reminded me of the common mistranslation of the last of the five Solas, “soli Deo gloria”. The mistranslation is rendered as ” To the glory of God Alone”. This error is made even by seminary professors because they presumably do not know Latin even if well-versed in Greek and Hebrew.
    The dative case endings of “soli” and “Deo” make it very clear that the translation should be “To God Alone glory”. In the N.T. this sDg phrase is similarly found in two of Paul’s doxologies in Rms 11:36 and Eph. 3:21. In the Latin Vulgate, the phrase appears as “ipsi gloria… “, using the dative reflexive pronoun, ” ipsi” — “To Him (self) glory…” (ESV).
    I have tried to explain this to pastors to no avail. “Sola Fide” suffers the same translation error because the ablative case endings are not appreciated.

  7. Matthew Burt,
    Great to hear from you; were you in the same class as Bob Hurley? It’s a bit of a fog now to recall 1984 (!). I’m glad I could contribute to your understanding of both Greek and English.
    If you are in Savannah, go harass my friend Terry Johnson some time; any old insult will do, provided that it is couched in conventional grammar…
    T. David

    • I do not recall Bob Hurley. I did transfer to my brother-in-law, Bill Barcley’s, class after one semester with you.
      Terry is my pastor. I will pass the word along to him.
      MB

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