Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (2014)

Part I. Gwynne’s Grammar

Chapter 2. A Note of Encouragement

Here is a step-by-step proof (yes, a proof that really is valid!) that happiness depends partly on grammar.

Step one. For genuine thinking, we need words. (By “genuine thinking” I mean as opposed to merely being conscious of feeling hungry, tired, angry and so on and wanting to do something about it; in other words, anything that animals cannot do.) Thinking cannot be done without words.

Step two. If we do not use words rightly, we shall not think rightly.

Step three. If we do not think rightly, we cannot reliably decide rightly, because good decisions depend on accurate thinking.

Step four. If we do not decide rightly, we shall make a mess of our lives and also of other people’s lives to the extent that we have an influence on other people.

Step five. If we make a mess of our lives, we shall make ourselves and other people unhappy.

In summary of the proof: grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which—as both common sense and experience show—happiness is impossible. Therefore, happiness depends at least partly on good grammar.

Nor does the importance of grammar stop there. Let us expand on some of the elements of the proof just given and also take the proof a little further.

Step one. Words are what we think with as well as communicate with. Without words, we can feel (tired, hungry, angry and so on), but we cannot think. We cannot reason things out, not even the simplest things.

Step two. From Step one it then follows that if we are to think correctly and usefully, words need to be used correctly, obviously.

Step three. Using words correctly involves two sciences. One of them is vocabulary, the science of what words mean. The other is grammar, the science of how words are used in order to have thoughts and to convey thoughts—in the form of either statements, questions, wishes or commands. Although vocabulary is in one sense the primary science of all sciences, because we cannot have grammar without words to be grammatical with, it is also the case that vocabulary depends, practically speaking, on grammar. We even need grammar in order to understand vocabulary—to understand the definitions in a dictionary.

Step four. Vocabulary and grammar—words and the correct use of words—are therefore the sciences that are the necessary prelude to the science of thinking. The science of thinking is technically known as logic.

Step five. Logic, in turn, is the necessary prelude to the science of communicating, which includes arguing and debating (which in turn include how to spot and see through attempts to bamboozle us with bogus arguments), and is technically known as the science of rhetoric.

Step six. On these four sciences—vocabulary, grammar, logic, and rhetoric—all other sciences, without exception, depend.

Step seven. We turn now to the taking of decisions. Even at the simplest level, that of taking decisions big or small, the quality of our decisions is going to depend on the accuracy and clarity of the thinking we put into them, and bad decisions adversely affect our well-being, our happiness and the happiness of people who are affected by us.

Step eight. It does not stop there. If enough people in any society are incompetent in their thinking and in consequence take bad decisions, their bad decisions inevitably affect the whole of that society. The very well-being of society therefore depends in part on good grammar.

Step nine. Would that the harmful effects of bad grammar stopped there. They do not. Civilisation itself exists only in the various societies that make it up. If enough societies in the world crumble as a result of bad decisions taken because of bad thinking, yes, the whole of world civilisation faces collapse, with consequences for each individual that are literally incalculable.

As an argument for the usefulness of this little book, all of that is dramatic and far-reaching indeed. And the logic supporting the case is sufficiently clear-cut to be its own authority. After all, what is demonstrably true is true even if no one believes it. Truth is not decided by majority vote, nor even by unanimous vote, nor even by the majority or unanimous vote of experts.

Even so, given that those most influential in education during the last few decades have been completely dismissive of grammar, some readers may at least be comforted to know that far from my being in isolation in stressing the unique importance of grammar, others clearly well placed to make a judgement have recently seen fit to air the same view in even stronger language than I have been using.

Libby Purves, experienced broadcaster, journalist and author, OBE for services to journalism, and 1999 Columnist of the Year, in an article in The Times of London on 27 August 2012 wrote:

Of all school disciplines English language matters most. Clarity, confidence, communication are the bedrock of every other endeavour in education and in life: from physics to marketing, from engineering to law. Neglecting, downgrading and generally dumbing standards is a greater cruelty to children than anything visited on them by a clumsy exam board … It is wicked not to emphasise the difference between chatty street slang and formal, universally understood, clarity and correctness.

Dot Wordsworth, long-serving columnist for the weekly Spectator, also used the word “cruel” in an article in the Daily Telegraph of 6 July 2012:

It’s cruel not to teach children grammar … Pupils (or students as they are mysteriously called) are not taught such rules of spelling as may exist and certainly are not tested on them. As for adverbs, subjects, objects or clauses, let alone such fabulous monsters as subjunctives, children are left in sublime ignorance of them … At its worst, educational theory that rejects grammar does so because of a mad idea that children are noble savages better left to authenticity and the composition of rap lyrics. That way lies the scrapheap and jail. Grammar sets them free. No one would think it a kindness to give a teenager a car without teaching her1 to drive, and that includes the rules of the road.

The word “cruel” is perhaps especially appropriate and telling, given that it is quite commonly used against those who hold that grammar should be imposed on children for their lasting benefit.

Cruel? Every worthwhile skill needs effort to acquire it, and even some of the purely enjoyable ones need very considerable effort. Does anyone ever look back and regret the effort made? On the contrary, no one who reaches a level of skill in any field ever wishes that he had a lower degree of skill in that field. In whatever you undertake, you want to reach, within reason, as high a standard in that field as your inborn capabilities make possible. All the more is this so with grammar, when everything depends on it.

Ergo: whether with reference to saving civilisation, at one extreme, or to protecting from appalling cruelty a single little child over whom you have some influence, at the other extreme, the importance of grammar as the primary step in any education is actually beyond the possibility of exaggeration.

1 Note the “her”! N.M.G.