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

Part I. Gwynne’s Grammar

Chapter 9. Putting What Is Being Learnt into Practice

Many books on grammar, and most of them today, have exercises at the end of each chapter or section of a chapter, to give the pupil practice at what has just been learnt. None are included in this book, and the reason is of some interest. Experience shows that, although practice-exercises in a grammar textbook are useful up to a point, they are useful only up to a point—so much so that it can by no means be certain that they are worth the space that they would take up.

By that I mean that it is an interesting facet of psychology that students, probably especially—though not only—young ones, are only too capable of learning a new grammar rule, doing exercises on it without making any mistakes and then, in their ordinary writing, continuing to break the rule as consistently as they had been breaking it before.

Does this seem improbable? Here is a very experienced schoolmaster of the past, Lancelot Oliphant, in the first chapter of his A Matriculation English Course, confirming what I have found repeatedly in my teaching:

Young people … may, for example, be able to punctuate with meticulous accuracy a piece of prose given them as a punctuation test, but fail to make adequate use of their knowledge of punctuation in their ordinary written work. They may be able to detect the most subtle grammatical errors in “sentences for correction,” and yet unwittingly introduce those identical errors into the very next essay they write. Such undigested knowledge is of little use. You must not only possess the knowledge, but know when and how to apply it.

How is it that children can know what to do and yet not do it in practice?

In fact, this applies even more to adults than to children. The reason is summed up in the word “habit.” As we all know from experience, any habit we form dominates us even when we recognise that what that habit “makes” us do is wrong. All bad habits, and, all the more so, mental bad habits, dominate our conduct until replaced by new habits. Indeed, traditional wisdom has it that it takes fourteen times longer to learn something correctly after having first learnt it incorrectly than to learn it correctly the first time. From this psychological insight, completely neglected in modern education-theory, two things follow: first, the importance of correct teaching from the start, for the sake of efficiency and saving of time; secondly, the evident fact that undoing what has been taught incorrectly, and substituting what is correct, will always need much effort. It can indeed be credibly argued that nothing in this entire book is more important than what is in this paragraph.

Against that background, we can now turn to being constructive. We can look at the question: if how to use the knowledge acquired must be learnt, as well as acquiring that knowledge, how is this to be done?

The answer, clearly, is that the student must embark on the struggle of thinking. For instance, rather than do exercises out of a book, the student should be asked (a) himself—or herself!—to do the thinking-up of examples of what has just been learnt, and (b) to make a point of including examples when he next produces an essay or other piece of written work.

In other words, rather than do an exercise in much the same frame of mind as when doing a crossword puzzle, the student must engage with the problem, aiming at making the new rule, in a sense, a part of him.

I exhort you, therefore …

Teachers: Get your pupils writing regularly, under your supervision. There is no substitute for at least some daily writing, which includes conscientiously finding ways of using what has just been learnt, and continuing to do so under your supervision until what is at first a struggle becomes habitual and effortless.

Adult learners: Again, there is no substitute for daily writing in the way just described. Try to find someone to whom you can submit your writing so that it can be checked with an objective eye. Indeed, do feel free to ask me to help you to find someone, if you have difficulty locating someone exactly suitable.

All learners adult and young: Supplement your daily writing with careful reading of the best writers of English, not primarily for the purpose of enjoying what you are reading, but, in this instance, for the purpose of studying and absorbing how they do what they do, so that you can at once start putting it into practice.

Suggested authors for this purpose are: Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc, John Buchan, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who can safely be considered to be leading prose stylists of the twentieth century. Regarded by some of the best authors of the last century as the champion of them all was P. G. Wodehouse, a sentence by whom I quoted admiringly in Chapter 7this page. He too can be usefully studied, but only for examining how he achieves his effects. To such an extent does he stand alone that any attempt to imitate his technique can only be expected to fail embarrassingly.

Incidentally, all those authors were competent Latinists and could never have reached their standards of craftsmanship if they had not been.

Once again, what are needed are regular, painstaking, systematic, properly directed efforts. They are needed for any worthwhile skill, including those learnt purely to give enjoyment, such as table tennis and chess. And to make this point for one last time, learning to think and communicate in speech and in writing is the most worthwhile skill of all.