When an idiosyncratic book on English grammar becomes a bestseller in the United Kingdom, it makes one wonder who is buying it. English-as-a-second language immigrants? Schoolteachers? Students who feel their current instruction deficient? Adults who got short shrift in grammar when back in school? If so, then perhaps Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English will become a bestseller here in the colonies as well. It should. Heaven knows we need it.
Recently released here, the opinionated and delightful dip into the wonderfully complex and logical world of English grammar was an eye-opener for me. Not because I learned much I didn’t already know—I did not. But it alerted me to how good an education in the rules of grammar I got in public school in the 50’s and 60’s. And these were not well-funded schools in toney neighborhoods but, first, a rural southern Illinois grade school where farm kids came to class barefoot in September and, secondly, a working-class suburban St. Louis school district that has now lost accreditation.
My grammar education differed sharply from that received by the 18 African American students in a remedial grammar class I taught in the mid 90’s at St. Louis’ Forest Park Community College. I was stunned when I looked at the results of the first diagnostic writing assignment I had given them. All had gone through 12 years in St. Louis Public Schools, all had graduated from high school, and none—through no fault of their own—could write a grammatically correct sentence except by accident.
On the second day of class I gave them the bad news first: You have been screwed by repeated educational malpractice perpetrated by teachers and administrators who abdicated their main responsibility: to teach you the rudiments of the language you need to succeed in life. Then the good news: You have me as teacher, and I’ll correct that.
That promise was overly optimistic. After some stumbling about I obtained grade school workbooks for everyone and together we all went back to where the problem started—first grade. We worked on the parts of speech (diagramming sentences, helped, something they had never been exposed to), spelling rules and structure, verb-noun agreement, etc. By semester’s end most of them got it, and a few had turned into pretty competent writers. Three or four failed—their poor reading skills, which I couldn’t myself address, held them down. (The experience was the seed that led to my writing my new novel, Fail, a St. Louis-based mystery that dramatizes the city’s educational ills and its violent results.)
As Gwynne’s Grammar author N.M. Gwynne argues, “[G]rammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which…happiness is impossible.”
I am unsure if I agree with that syllogism, although there is ample evidence everywhere you look that suggests poor grammar and unhappiness often go hand-in-hand. If you can’t use the language correctly these days, expect some hard times.