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I regret to report that grammar schools no longer teach grammar. It is considered as retrograde as observing that girls prefer dolls and boys prefer war or insisting that boys and girls are not interchangeable. But it is no coincidence that our loss of true grammar preceded our current confusion over the meaning of “boy” and “girl.” 

Grammar’s primary concern is with the relationship between language and reality. As the scholar Sr. Miriam Joseph puts it, grammar refers to “how the intellect uses language to translate reality.” If we sever the connection between language and reality, true grammar is impossible, and our use of language becomes solipsistic. That the connection has been severed is evident in the transgenderism phenomenon, which can only take root in an ungrammared culture such as ours. Without reality, our intellect has nothing to translate, and language roams freely in a Willy Wonka world of “pure imagination.” 

So-called “classical” schools have attempted to capture and re-domesticate the feral beast. Classical schools, however, are not classical enough. The emphasis popular curricula (such as that of Classical Academic Press) place on sentence diagramming reproduces not the classical tradition but the grammar instruction pervasive in public schools a few generations ago. An artifact of nineteenth-century Enlightenment thinking, sentence diagramming reduces grammar to mere syntax, and syntax to the mechanical interrelationship of parts of speech within a closed system. 

To recover the fullness of syntax, to say nothing yet of grammar proper, we need to understand how language relates to, or “translates,” reality. We must return to Aristotelian epistemology and a proper understanding of words. To know a word requires knowing what part of reality it refers to. How do we come to such knowledge? Through experience, our senses form phantasms—or mental images—of what we encounter, and our intellect then apprehends their substantial forms, or essences. Though we experience many particular cats, we come to know the substantial form of “cat,” or the “cat-ness” of the cat. This “cat-ness” now lives in my mind as a concept distinct from and above its instantiations. When I say “cat” and you hear “cat,” our minds contain the same “cat,” for our intellects have translated our shared reality into a concept, which has been given a name through convention. Our words come from reality and to reality they point. The process is incarnational: Our intellects come to know immaterial and unchangeable concepts through the naming of things in the corporeal world.

Syntax likewise cannot be understood independently from its relationship to reality. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle illuminates the relationship: “Those things are said to be essentially which are signified by the various ways of predication; for these are as many as there are meanings of ‘being.’” In other words, the “ways of predication” communicate the “meanings of being,” of which Aristotle identifies ten: substance, quality, quantity, relation, place, time, posture, possession, acting, and being acted upon. These ten categories of being encompass all that can be said through predication. The first and most essential category is “substance,” for it is the only category that has existence in itself. The other nine are accidents, existing only within a substance. For example, the sentence, “Wonka is wacky,” predicates Aristotle’s second category, quality, to the substance “Wonka.” The wackiness exists in Wonka but does not exist outside of the substance. It is only because there are substances that there are syntactical subjects that then receive predicates. 

The inextricable link between syntax and reality should caution us against chopping sentences up and reassembling them according to an idiosyncratic set of rules that bear no natural relationship to linguistic expression. (Recall Gandalf’s proverb, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”) After all, the greatest orators from Cicero to Martin Luther and the greatest poets from Virgil to Shakespeare attained their mastery of language without the use of sentence diagramming. And if we take seriously Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the “medium is the message,” we must admit that sentence diagramming trains students to see language as a self-contained system wherein each constituent part relates only to other constituent parts but to no reality outside itself. 

At best, I will admit, diagramming might help some students learn syntax if it is nestled within an understanding of the full cosmic import of language. At worst, when mistaken for grammar proper, as is so often the case, it sucks the souls out of words and arranges their corpses in a hideous display. Grammar becomes another casualty of modern schooling’s propensity for mistaking means for ends, leaving students bored, confused, and hating what they ought to love. 

McLuhan also provides insight into the particular problem of grammar in his doctoral thesis on the history of the classical trivium. He shows how before Descartes, “language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of man and of the physical world as well.” After Descartes, mathematics eclipses this “grammatical method” and we begin to see the reduction of grammar to “mere matters of accidence and syntax.” Sentence diagramming is the result of this eclipse. The qualitative nature of language is seen through the quantitative nature of mathematics.

Contra the assertion of Dorothy Sayers and classical schools that grammar is a “stage” corresponding to a certain age group, McLuhan presents the “grammatical method” as a way of being, a way of reading not just literature, but all of reality, in all of its symbolic richness. Hence, syntax has always been nestled in a larger conception of grammar. For example, in the second century b.c. Dionysius Thrax separated the study of grammar into six parts, of which “the noblest part” is “criticism of poetical productions.” In the sixth century, St. Isidore of Seville further divided grammar into thirty parts, including “histories,” “tales,” “etymology,” and “analogy.”

Etymology and allegorical interpretation, both emphasized by St. Isidore, keep fresh in the grammarian’s mind the incarnational reality of language. Etymology focuses on the material and conventional nuances of a particular language, and allegorical interpretation reminds us that a particular language incarnates an unchanging reality. Not only do words incarnate concepts, those concepts in turn participate in a transcendent reality. Discovering the ways in which material reality itself symbolizes the immaterial or spiritual reality is the fullness of what is meant by “allegorical interpretation.” Examples of this mode of interpretation abound in the grammar of the Church Fathers. We find a useful modern example in C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra where he muses on the nature of the masculine and feminine:

Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. . . . Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. 

So “boy” and “girl” do not just mean boy and girl. For “boy” and “girl” participate in a reality that is higher than them and gives them their meaning. To put it simply, a word points to a thing that points to a higher thing, perhaps the highest thing. 

As McLuhan shows, even before “The Word” became flesh, the grammar developed by the Stoics sought to interpret the highest reality of which language was a symbol. They sensed that our ability to know reality meant that there existed some transcendent reality that united our minds with the reality they encountered. This higher reality they called the Logos. Heraclitus asserts that “The senses show us in the universe a perpetual flowing. . . . Behind these changes the Word points to that which is one and unchanging.” The Church Fathers did not invent their method of allegorical interpretation but rather applied and expanded the grammar inherited from their pagan predecessors. Grammar for both pagans and Christians was governed by the belief that language is, to quote McLuhan, “the expression and analogy of the Logos.” The pagans’ grammar attempted to interpret the whole of reality according to their own lights. The Church’s grammar rested on the faith that “The Word” became flesh and that he revealed himself in a particular set of words called Scripture, providing the foundation for a true and proper allegorical interpretation of reality. 

For them, and for everyone wishing to be “classical,” grammar begins and ends with “the Word.”

S. A. Dance is a teacher and writer in Northern California. 

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Image by Arnold Lakhovsky via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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