Okay, this is my last free New York Times article of the month, so I’d better write about it while I still have it open in my browser. My mom (probably like your mom), has a penchant for sending me articles I might find interesting, but not without the underlying, “If I don’t make you read the paper, you will never be a cultivated person.” Here is her most recent contribution.
My immediate reaction: I want, need to learn how to diagram sentences. The closest I ever got in school was underlining different parts of speech in different colors or with squiggles and dashes. It’s the perfect alternative to sudoku for people who are bad at sudoku (like me). Numbers couldn’t possibly motivate me the way understanding a complicated sentence motivates me. (If you know of a good website or book that teaches diagramming, please bring it to my attention.)
My response to the content of the argument: I have always believed that understanding grammar makes it easier to write well. Good writing has very little to do with being articulate or having a good vocabulary. Once the writing is already good, such attributes will help a writer make a stronger argument with more colorful language. Good writing starts with grammar because written language is distinct from spoken language (this is literally the only information I retained from Anthropology 102). Countless times, articulate, thoughtful students would visit the Writing Center with no understanding of the passive voice, your English teacher’s greatest, most mysterious nightmare (right up there with the comma splice).
Of course, the rules of grammar still apply to spoken language, but we usually figure out the basics as babies. Our natural exposure to spoken language teaches us how to form a sentence. We also more willingly forgive grammatical errors in spoke language because we can use tone of voice, body language, and environment to extract what people mean from what they say. Written language, on the other hand, is isolated, and grammar is the only structure we can depend on as a guide to meaning.
I’m sure you’ve heard people say that they learned more about English grammar from studying a foreign language than from their English classes. You likely experienced a similar revelation in middle or high school. When learning a foreign language, we willingly acknowledge that we don’t know what’s going on: we don’t know the rules. So, we learn the conditional in French more easily than in English because we can’t explain the difference between “If I were” and “If I was,” but in French we are told which tenses are appropriate without hearing much natural use of the conditional before the day we learn it… which isn’t to say I think language can be learned by rote!
Any assumption that written English is something we should know before we learn the grammar can prevent us from learning it. Teaching written English as a foreign language or alongside the grammar of a foreign language would pull out the plug of “I should know this” and let everything we don’t know come flooding in (if this bathwater analogy works for you…). I’m not sure if a similar methodology already exists, and I wouldn’t really know where to start, but I think sentence diagramming accomplishes the important task of rendering written English foreign to us. It breaks us down while simultaneously breaking language down, and then builds us both back up. Or that’s the idea, isn’t it?
I certainly understand when Ms. Florey says that “diagramming is not for everyone,” just like calculus or the fall of the Roman Empire isn’t for everyone, but even if you’re not a writer, I think you deserve to know how written language works.