Wednesday 13 June 2012

Grammar - rules or patterns?

In the next period of primary education there is going to be a good deal of talk about 'grammar' and even as I'm writing this, educational publishers are rushing around trying to find people to write grammar books which will fit the requirements of the draft document published this week.

 The idea that grammar is governed by rules will surface many times. My own view is that this is not a helpful way to think about what grammar is. I think it's much more useful and helpful to all of us if we think of grammar as a form of patterning - a patterning that has shape and practice and meaning in the same way as our customs and habits have shape, practice and meaning. Take something like laying a table. We do this differently, depending on the circumstances: at home, at a restaurant, at a wedding, a buffet, on a picnic - there are many others. How did we get to learn or know these ways of doing it? From the people we know and meet and, on occasions seeing things on TV or on films. It's through custom and usage. We might say, perhaps, that there are 'core' ways of laying tables: something to eat off, something to make things small enough to get into our mouths, ways of wiping our mouths, something to get things into our mouths and so on. You could perhaps, call that the core grammar or 'syntax' of laying tables: structures and functions. And we could look at this or that table (without the people present) and interpret why this or that table had been laid in that way and with those particular implements or plates - posh, medium posh, not posh. And it's clear that the same people can lay tables in one way for one set of people and another way for another set. We respond to who's there, on the receiving end, if you like.

All this involves choice, adaptation, reflection even though a lot of it may appear instinctive. But it isn't an activity or custom that we would normally describe with the word 'rules'. It's a patterning of culture. That said,  you can quickly see on people's faces if you diverge from the pattern. Try putting a plate upside down on the table, for example. Or, as happened to me when I used to go and see some German friends, seeing an afternoon table layed with wooden plates. But it wasn't as if there was no table being layed. It was a different pattern.

I think this analogy holds fairly well for understanding what the grammar or syntax of language is. The reason why people call it rules is because that's what 'prescriptive' grammarians have called it. They were the grammarians who described the language in order to say how people should speak and write it. So, yes, they  said that what they were describing were rules. Many modern linguists also use the word 'rules' meaning something slightly different: that language has to have this or that structure or it wouldn't make sense, it wouldn't even be a structure. A house is only a house, they say, because the builders followed certain obligatory acts to make it stay standing up. Otherwise it would be a heap of useless rubble.

If that was the only way we understood the word 'rules', that would be fine by me. The problem is, though, that most children understand that rules are something governed by an obligation to an authority, not to a structure, like a house, a football, or a sentence.

All this may seem like a quibble, but I think it has a worrying effect on how teachers will be expected to teach, how examiners will examine, how children will be expected to understand or learn grammar. Learning the structure of the language as a set of rules that must be obeyed, rather than cultural patterning in which you are a participant are two fundamentally different positions to be in. In one you are the passive recipient, in the other you are the active agent. Language can only have been created and have evolved and goes on changing because all humans are active participants in its making. This is not to say we do this from scratch. Far from it, we work with the language we hear, we work on that language and we produce language - in patterns.

Now, I want to leap to why I think grammar is fascinating and challenging while fully understanding that most people I know find it quite dull.

I'll begin with something that I learned at school: prepositions. We used to make lists of them: up, on, to, with, through, by...and so on. And we were told that that they came in 'phrases' like 'up the wall', 'on the wall', 'through the wall'. Quite often these 'phrases', they told us have something to do with verbs: 'I go up the wall', 'I go on the wall', 'I go through the wall'. And then we were told that the phrase that came after the verb was 'the predicate' and the noun 'wall' in that phrase had a function: it was the 'indirect object'. If we learned Latin or German (as I did) we found that this whole matter was different from English because this matter of the 'indirect object' meant that we had to put a different 'ending' on the end of the noun and (in German) on the end of the German word for 'the'.

That's how I was taught.

Now, if you look in the Draft Proposals you won't find the term 'indirect object'. Why not? Wasn't it a 'rule' when I was at school that you put the preposition in front of the noun in one of these phrases? The main reason I suspect that it's not there is because it's acknowledged that such terminology belongs to other languages and not English. Calling 'wall' in that sentence an 'indirect object' causes more problems than it solves. And here's why:

In English we have a way of talking and writing where verbs are relatively more or less attached to these prepositions. If I was a ghost, I could say 'I walk through a wall'. If I was a dancer I could say, 'I walk through my dance routine before dancing it.' At school, nice and simple: 'a wall' and 'my dance routine' are 'indirect objects'. Problem solved, good mark in my exam.

Now watch this. What if we turn the wall and the dance routine into 'it' (the pronoun)? Will it sound the same?

First one: 'I walk through a wall' becomes 'I walk through it' and I can't say 'I walk it through'.
Second one: 'I walk through my dance routine' becomes 'I walk through it' OR I can say, 'I walk it through'.

What?! What's happened?
Why does it seem as if the exactly the same expression: 'walk through' make me position the 'it' in one place in the first one and in the second one I have the option of doing either.

It's because in the first case the verb is 'walk' and in the second case the verb is 'walk through'.

In the first case, (ie the wall) perhaps some people would hang on to the expression 'indirect object' but in the second one, grammarians would want to say that 'my dance routine' is the 'object' or 'direct object'.

The hard thing for anyone though is to see anything different about those two sentences: 'I walk through a wall' and 'I walk through my dance routine'. A verb like 'walk through' by the way, gets called a 'phrasal verb'.

As I said, I don't think it helps anyone to talk about all this in terms of 'rules'. I don't even think it helps all that much doing what I've just done which is talk myself through it. Much more interesting for me and you would have been for us to play a game: taking a set of sentences using 'prepositions' and seeing what happens when  you turn the noun following the preposition into a pronoun (it, them, him, her, me, us, you, yours, his, hers, ours, mine theirs, its) and in so doing discover this stuff about verbs and prepositions along with discovering some stuff about prepositions eg that we don't write:  'He gave it to he' or 'he gave it to I'.

Mind you, before that I would look at patterns. Patterns in cloth, numbers, plants, molecules. The interesting thing about graphic patterns in cloth, wallpapers, drawings is that you can predict what comes when the pattern stops - think of the edge of a tartan for example. You can always draw the next bit. I think Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky' shows that in some ways, language is similar to that. That's to say, even though many of the words are nonsense, it follows a pattern. So, to take one example, the word 'toves' has the word 'the' in front of it which tells us that it's a noun and it's followed by a verb we recognise 'did' which is followed by word 'gyre' which sounds like a verb. Why? Partly because it appears to 'agree' with 'goves'. If it ended in 'ly' 'gyrely' it would sound like an 'adverb' and if it ended in 's' it would sound even odder - thus: 'the slithy toves did gyres and gimble'...We might say, it wouldn't make sense! Even though they are nonsense words.

In other words, grammar or 'syntax' seems to have a sense of its own.

Playing with 'Jabberwocky' in this way, seeing what happens, changing the endings and changing the word order would show us a good deal of the workings of grammar.

This treats grammar as something to investigate, discover and to experiment with.

I think it's much harder to do that if you call them rules.
I think it's much harder to think of grammar as something that we humans made, if you call all this rules.
I think it's much  harder to understand and get to know grammar if you call this rules...even if, later, at university, say, you may want to call them rules in the scientific sense of structures giving meaning, rather than prescribed regulations.
I think it's much harder to feel free to experiment with language if you call this stuff rules.