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

Part I. Gwynne’s Grammar

Chapter 5. Still Introductory

1. Grammar has two main divisions.

One of these divisions is called morphology, sometimes otherwise called accidence. Morphology deals with how words are formed and especially with how words change their form—most often their endings—when they are used for different purposes.

Examples of words changing their form—usually, but by no means always, their endings—are:

Nouns—for instance, “cat” and “cats”; “woman” and “women”; “mouse” and “mice.”

Pronouns—for instance, “we” and “us”; “who,” “whom” and “whose”; “this” and “these.”

Adjectives—for instance, “nice,” “nicer,” “nicest”; and “good,” “better,” “best.”

Verbs—for instance, “love,” “loves,” “loved,” “loving” (and even “lovable,” though that is a pure adjective rather than any part of a verb); and “sing,” “sings,” “sang,” “sung” and “singing”; “eat,” “eats,” “ate,” “eaten” and “eating.” Most spectacular of all, in its number of changes, is the verb “to be,” which can change to “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “been” and “being”—eight widely differing forms in total.

More on this aspect of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs in Chapter 6.

The other main division of grammar is called syntax. Syntax deals with the use made of words, especially when words are used in combination. This usually involves (a) arranging words into sentences (see Chapter 7) that represent correctly and express exactly the thought of the speaker or writer, and (b) choosing the right word form for any particular purpose, as in “Have parents whose children’s work has continually needed improvement ever beenknown to consider better stimuli in such crises?”

2. Because of the importance of definitions in the study of language, it is as well to know exactly what a definition is. A definition is a statement of the precise nature of something or the precise meaning of a word or phrase. Specifically in vocabulary and grammar, a definition is a statement of the exact meaning of a word or phrase that sufficiently distinguishes it from any other word or phrase, preferably in the fewest possible words.

The best way, indeed almost always the right way, to produce the most accurate, crisp and succinct definition of anything is to divide the definition into two parts:

a.  the general group or class to which the object being defined belongs, or, in more technical terminology, the genus immediately above the object being defined; and

b.  enough difference or differences between the object being defined and anything else in the same group, the group “above” it, to leave it standing on its own.

Both (a) and (b) must also be defined if necessary, and so on, until it is completely clear what every term in a definition means.

Thus the classic definition of a human being, “a rational animal,” perfectly follows this principle, because

a.  The word “animal” embraces all beings that move, feed themselves, reproduce, feel, desire and even in some degree imagine.

b.  The additional and exclusive ability of human beings to analyse and arrive at reasoned conclusions indicated by the word “rational” sufficiently distinguishes them from all other animals.

Most of the definitions in these pages follow this pattern.

The importance of definitions for all intellectual purposes can hardly be overestimated. “Define your terms” should be, at least implicitly, the starting point of any discussion or debate that is at all important and complicated. In the absence of clearly stated and agreed definitions, all too often two parties discussing or arguing about something will in fact either

  be discussing or arguing about different things, or

  be using arguments that are bound to be completely misunderstood, or

  both.

That said, it is notable that in grammar satisfactory definitions are sometimes difficult to come up with, other than at a length which would make them too unwieldy for students of grammar to learn from. On the face of it, this is a serious matter, given that grammar is the most important of all sciences, with every other science without exception depending on the abilities to think and communicate, and therefore on strict accuracy in the use of words.

The problem needs to be mentioned for the sake of good order, especially after so much emphasis has been put on the importance of definitions. No practical problems arise, however. Sometimes, as in every grammar book, we shall have to “make do” with definitions that will “do” for practical purposes, even though strictly speaking they are not genuine definitions. I shall always make it clear when a definition is not strictly accurate, but this will only be because I ought to as a matter of principle. An important function of this book, after all, is the promotion of exactness of the highest degree in thinking and communicating, and anyway the difficulties with definitions are often interesting. It will not be found that any lack of—may I say it?—definitiveness in any of the definitions will interfere with mastering the grammar that depends on them.

3. Less important than definitions, but certainly helpful and often interesting, is what is called etymology. This is the science of how words come to be as they are. Knowing how words came into the English language can often give a clearer understanding of their meaning, even when the meaning is by no means the same as it originally was, as is often the case.

In the following chapters, my aim will be to give enough derivations to show that derivations are worthy of study, rather than to be comprehensive—which is surely unnecessary bearing in mind that any good dictionary can be used to fill in any gaps. I very much hope that readers will find themselves encouraged to take an interest in the subject, however. As can scarcely be said too often, the more thoroughly and intimately we know our language, the better it is for us in every imaginable way.

Thus it is not merely an advantage to know why such words as “noun,” “adjective” and “clause” have come to have their meanings. To take an interest in etymology is in some degree to take an interest in history. Every word is a word which came into existence at some point in time for some reason, often to fulfil a need since without it we should be unable to have the thought that it expresses.

Furthermore, the study could also open up or deepen our appreciation of the achievements in this field of our ancestors, and even motivate us to defend their achievements. Some of the words which we shall be coming across stand out as wonderfully well chosen, and are even sometimes concocted with remarkable subtlety, and at some point someone must have put together a particular word, and enough others must have recognised its value for it to become generally adopted.

That, clearly, is how language ought to be changed: by the adoption of words and expressions which do a job that had not been done before. Other than when used informally, as in slang, language should not be changed for no better reason than for some possibly amusing fashion. It should not be changed in any direction that makes it less precise or otherwise weaker. If etymology helps us to appreciate the cultural skills of our ancestors, we shall be less likely to commit the crime of cultural vandalism involved in letting go or damaging what we have received and more likely to want to defend it.

Thus some of the value of etymology, both in the context of what we are studying and trying to master in these pages and also in general. And since it may be helpful to illustrate what I have just been saying, let us make an immediate start by looking at the etymology of three important words in this very chapter.

Morphology is made up of two Greek words. The first of them, morphe, means, primarily, “shape” or “form.” The second, logos, is possibly the single most profound word in any language. Its primary meaning is “word” in the sense of the word by which an inward thought is expressed, and its secondary meaning is the “inward thought” itself, or “reason.” It also has a large number of meanings related to “word” and “reason.” It is even used in the first verse of the fourth Gospel to represent the Founder of Christianity before He became incarnate—“In the beginning was the Word.”

In the word “morphology,” logos is probably best translated as “study” or “science.” Combining morphe and logos, therefore, we can arrive at “The study of how individual words change their shape as we put them to different uses.”

Does not that information about a word make the word more real?—and even make it easier to remember? Already I hope it is evident that etymology has a practical value as well as being educational in other ways.

Syntax comes from the Greek words sun, meaning “together with” or “along with,” and taxis, meaning primarily “a drawing up in order of an army.” From that military terminology, we get the figurative “Putting words collected together into the right order so as to make sense.” Even dry-as-dust grammatical terms can be colourful in their origins.

Will you now admit, dear discerning reader, that etymology can be helpful, and not only helpful but interesting too, and not only helpful and interesting but sometimes even fun?

And the word etymology itself? Etumos means “true” or “real” or “actual.” Etymology is therefore the study of what words really are, which of course is to be found in their origins.

Finally, here is an important word which we have not used before: parse. Coming, through French, from the Latin partes, which means “parts,” parsing is analysing everything that can be analysed in a sentence into its grammatical components. Learning to parse and making the best use of the skill is much of what this book is about.