Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

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I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Grammar: An Ode (sort of)

The only feeling I get from this article is concern. 

And of course, my concern is for the children. But not as children, please understand. Children as children have people to care for them. But when those children grow up and haven’t learned how to function, the fear and the loneliness and the despair that they will feel will make the worst insult a child has ever heard feel like a feather under the chin.

Like everything else in life, the matter is complicated. But like everything else in education, the irreducible bloating of the structures have made solutions impossible. I get the impression from this article that Otis Mathis is truly a good man, honorable, and even worth following. I praise Otis Mathis for his diligence and persistance in attaining such a high position.

That moral excellence, however, doesn’t qualify him to be the head of the Detroit Public Schools. If, when he was a child, he had not been educated on the false assumptions of Progressive theory, he could probably have become a great school leader, a model of academic excellence.

I have to be careful. I don’t want to say more than the evidence warrants. I don’t want to be a bull seeing red. Here is my simple contention (and no more than this):

The failure to teach the current DPS president correct English grammar when he was a child has undercut his ability to lead the Detroit Public Schools as an adult.

Contained in that contention are subordinate beliefs, such as the importance of grammar, the ability of almost every child to learn it when properly taught, the need to teach young children formal grammar (though not necessarily to teach it formally – the difference is significant), and the value of every language skill in the minds of those who lead.

When he was in third and fourth grade, I have no doubt that teachers were asking, “How is grammar relevent to his life?”

Now, perhaps, they know.

But I am not going to draw any conclusions. I wish Mr (Dr?) Mathes well and I hope he is able to reform the Detroit schools in such a way that teachers are 1. set free to teach, 2. equipped to teach, 3. required to teach, and that students are 1. required to learn, 2. equipped to learn, and 3. set free to learn.

God bless you Otis Mathes. You have overcome much. Please see that Detroit’s students have less to overcome, at least when it comes to writing.

Grammar Lesson 2: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (with a little historical introduction)

What a funny term – parts of speech. Aren’t there other parts of speech besides the written words? Like gestures.

Well, not strictly speaking. Speaking is, strictly speaking, using words.

Do you know where the parts of speech come from?

Trick question. The come from language.

Do you know who discovered them?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Did you know that Aristotle would not have been able to name the eight parts of speech? I would like to develop this further in another post, but for now let me answer the question I started this paragraph with.

In fact, David Mulroy provides the answer in his The War Against Grammar:

“The individual responsible for dividing words into eight groups is known to posterity as Dionsius Thrax (“the Thracian”)…. He studied under Aristarchus, the head of the library of Alexandria and the greatest of literary scholars in the second century B.C. Later he taught grammar and literature on the island of Rhodes [ed. Note, does that make him a Rhodes Scholar or just a Rhode Islander?], another center of Greek intellectual life. There he did the usual thing for a professional scholar, publishing a number of treatises on language and literature. Of these, only a very brief one survives, Techne Grammatike (“The Grammatical Art”). Despite its brevity, it is reasonable to list Dionysius’ Techne among the most influential books ever written, for it was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world.”

No small achievement!

As an aside, next time a fundamentalist Christian type asks you why you are wasting your time on “pagans” give them a one word answer: “grammar.” All the other answers are contained in that one.

Mulroy continues so we can see the context and magnitude of this accomplishment:

“Before Dionysius’ time, the classification of most words was up in the air. Aristotle and his successor spoke of nouns, verbs, and everything else; various more detailed systems of classification were proposed without catching on. Dionysius’ swept away the competition. His book became a standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians. Via the last, especially Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages.”

Do you agree that there are eight? Do you agree that an article is an adjective?

Let me turn to the immediately practical: children need to learn the parts of speech as early as possible. Adults find it much more difficult to find the time and mental flexibility to learn them in their dotage (i.e. their twenties).

Notice that, from Aristotle to Dionysius, subject and verbs were clearly understood. It is worth pointing out that the parts all relate to subjects and predicates. Maybe he saw that.

A subject is going to be a noun, even if it is some other part of speech converted into a noun. Only a noun can have something predicated of it.

A predicate will usually be a verb. Can you think of any exceptions?

As soon as I have a noun, I’ll notice (often) that saying the noun is not enough to rightly express my subject. I could say, “X does this” but that would not tell me very much, unless the context tells me the rest.

So I’ll look at that noun and I’ll want to change it, to modify it. The most obvious change to make is to add an adjective.

Adjective comes from the Latin and it means literally “thrown near or next to”. This is, of course, a very concrete definition and doesn’t describe its verbal function, especially not in English. But if we think metaphorically, we can see the point.

An adjective is “thrown next to” the noun because the noun itself needed help or it needed to be modified. So we threw a word at it.

Logically or formally speaking, the attention goes to the noun, and that’s an important point.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the writer wants the attention to go to the adjective. Yet an adjective cannot exist without a noun to contain it, so even if you highlight the adjective, you’ll unavoidably highlight the noun it was thrown near, towards, or next to.

That point is important for some who want to argue that traditional grammar is all wet because some things are so hard to define.

Sometimes they claim that an adjective is a subset of the verb if we extend the meaning of a verb to include what the noun is or is doing.

Verbs and adjectives are remarkably similar. But the difference seems to be that an adjective can exist only “in” a noun, while a verb has an external relationship to the noun.

The other difference was pointed out by Aristotle. His explanation of a verb is probably more reliable than that in most contemporary grammar texts. A verb is difference because it has tense (past, present, future, etc.). Adjectives don’t.

As a speaker you might have another question you need to answer about a noun: are you talking about a particular noun or just any old noun of that kind.

In other words, are you talking about fish generally or the particular fish you want people to look at? Or maybe you are talking about a single fish, but not the specific one that somebody else might have talked about.

If you are talking about a specific fish, you will often use the definite article.

Talk about any old fish: no article.

One fish, but not a particular one: the indefinite article.

So in English we have two kinds of articles.

You could, of course, get sick of the noun you are talking about (I mean, of course, the sound-symbol, not the thing itself) or there might be so many of them that you can’t refer to them all particularly. In those cases, you’d use a pronoun, like “those” or “they.”

You remember “They” don’t you? They’re the ones who always know what to say and everybody knows what They say. I call them, “the Immortal They” and recognize that They rule the world.

There are different kinds of pronoun as well, but we’ll hold that off for another day.

There you have it: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (not, please note, subject side).

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

Eacho f these helps us to better grasp the subject of our thought in most sentences. Therefore, they enable us to better understand the nouns included in our thoughts and, often, about which we are thinking.

If we know the parts, we can start thinking about the forms they take. That will come later.

Teaching Grammar in Today’s Classroom

Here’s a fine video of a discussion about teaching grammar in the classroom: three brief, insightful lectures by experienced and witty veterans of the grammar wars. (here’s the link: – for some reason WordPress was not letting me create the hidden link. Sorry.)

Hat tip and thanks to Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany at his blog:

Foreign Language Education in the 21st Century 

Richard Weaver on Logic and Rhetoric, with a few applications to Debate

I’ve been posting quite a bit on the necessity for formal grammar instruction lately, and I will continue to do so in the days to come, God willing.

Grammar is a language study, one of the three liberal arts. The first.

Then comes logic or dialectic.

And then rhetoric.

For Grammar I have urged people to read The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.

For Rhetoric I may have a book even more profound and important to recommend. The book is The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver.

I can’t recommend it yet because I haven’t read enough of it, but what I have been able to read in my two minute time-thefts has been compelling.

You can perhaps imagine how tempting the first chapter was for me just by its title: “The Phaedrus [a dialogue by Plato] and the Nature of Rhetoric.”

But I was only flipping through, so I went to the second chapter. He begins by asserting that dialectic and rhetoric are two stages of argumentation. Now be patient with me because this next bit bears thoughtful response.

Dialectic is that stage which defines the subject satisfactorily with regard to the logos, or the set of propositions making up some coherent universe of discourse; and we can therefore say that a dialectical position is established when its relation to an opposite has been made clear and it is thus rationally rather than empirically sustained.

He’s only warming up. He has clarified for us what a logos is, at least when the word is applied to an argument. It is the face of the argument – the essence, if you like.

In addition, he has introduced this important idea of a “dialectical position” which is established “when its relation to an opposite has been made clear.” Here is the value of formal debate and its relation to dialectics or logic.

Next he raises the ante just a little bit:

We shall say that facts are never dialectically determined… and that the urgency of facts is never a dialectical concern.

If I were to reduce this to a practical lesson on debate (which it is not, but putting it in these terms may help us understand what he is getting at), I might say, “In a debate, the facts don’t determine who wins. The winner in a debate is the one who gets the logic of the thing down most effectively.”

I put it in that perhaps overstated way to draw out the necessary tension in what Weaver is saying.

But we have to remember that debates are not the place to study physics or history. They are, so far as they are logical/dialectical, the place to practice using logic.

Underlying these statements are two or more assumptions. First, logic is formal. Second, logic is so useful that students should practice using it in contests against each other.

Dialectic, in other words, is not about the way things are or even the way things should be. Perhaps the best way to say it is that dialectic is about the way things might be.

Weaver says

What a successful dialectic secures for any position therefore,… is not actuality but possibility; and what rhetoric thereafter accomplishes is to take any dialectically secured position… and show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct.

I may not be reading amiss to see the trivium placed before us in a rather tidy manner: Grammar, what is actual; Logic, what is possible, Rhetoric what is prudent or desirable.

To apply a stricter interpretation to my argument above, I acknowledge that a debate is not exactly a “dialectical position.” What it shares with the dialectical position is that it defines its position in its relation to an opposite. In other words, every debate debates two sides of an issue, side A and its opposite, side B.

Debate, however, goes further and makes an appeal to prudential conduct. Weaver has shown us that this is the rhetorical element of the debate.

We pass our lives debating issues, not usually consciously. To enter into a debating competition can make a young man or lady more aware of what is always going on in his unconscious mind, thereby giving him more control over it.

These paragraphs from Weaver can help any debater better understand the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a debate.

The debater would do well, then, to define clearly and carefully the relationship of his position to the other position. It is obvious that they are opposites, and that is a very good place to start (I love the obvious). But if he can demonstrate the particularities of that opposition, he will earn the favor of his judges and make them receptive to his argument.

Once you have secured your dialectic position, then you are able to “show its relationship to the world of prudential conduct,” i.e. tell people why they ought (would be prudent) to do what he is arguing for.

In LTW, we teach students division so they attend to the particularities of the opposition. We frequently argue about things about which we agree or focus on details that do not define the disagreement.

Establishing your dialectical position frees you from that failing.

It also frees you to make your case for the action you contend to be prudent. That’s rhetoric.

So reading Weaver provides practical insight into effective debating.

But there’s more to it than that. Weaver is writing about the ethics of rhetoric, not the pragmatics of debate.

I’m anxious to see where he takes me, because his framework seems to correspond comfortably with reality.

Interestingly, the chapter is entitled Dialectic and Rhetoric at Dayton, Tenn.

Seeing Through the Invisible

While I know you are all desperately waiting the posting of pictures and tales from my trip out west (a “business cruise” with Andrew Pudewa’s organization), I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for a day or two to see them.

I only have a moment and you don’t want to hear all the explanations about computers burning out and getting purchased and being adjusted to and all that rot. You just want to hear this:

CS Lewis introduced  a theme in The Pilgrim’s Regress that he developed continually throughout his writings, in particular, perhaps in The Abolition of Man.

I’m referring to his recognition that the modern and now the post-modern delights in “seeing through things.”

That part is recognized by almost everybody now, and the Beatles made a living off the motif after Sergeant Pepper, at the latest.


They had a song on their Revolver album, I believe, entitled, I’m Looking Through You so it was even before Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

But what Lewis saw was that, if you see through everything there is nothing left to look at.

You end up asking questions like Stanley Fish’s, “Is there a text in the classroom?” or writing essays like Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation.

Indeed, texts do disappear when you only look through them and interpretation becomes impossible when you stop noticing the forms of what you are looking at.

For these reasons I appreciate a phrase I saw a few minutes ago, though I no longer remember where. What I saw was, “the beauty of grammar.”

I don’t think most people think grammar is beautiful. Then again, they don’t think geometry is beautiful either. All that means is that they don’t have eyes to see.

The beauty of grammar is a formal and a calm beauty. I would go further and suggest that it is a hidden beauty.

Grammar is the skeleton of our language, but skeletons aren’t generally considered beautiful. If we want to hold to that metaphor, then let’s say that grammar is what makes the beauty of language possible.

The soul does not like confusion and disorder. Grammar removes them. It takes wild and whirling words and orders them, not arbitrarily but with deep meaning and purpose. It breathes respect for the auditor and ancestor into the sentence, and so exalts the speaker who humbles himself before her.

She makes human society possible and delightful. She weaves hearts together, even when they disagree.

Honestly, it is heartbreaking to see how she is despised and neglected in our day.

People want to see through every text and every statement, and not knowing grammar makes it a lot easier to do so. But the Beatle’s lyric comes back with a bit of a haunting conclusion:

I’m looking through you…

Where did you go?