“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.” — Montaigne
A fascinating discussion on the subject of grammar took place recently on Linkedin with the participation of some of the best minds in the writing business. Did Montaigne, the famous French essayist, really mean that grammar could cause wars, poverty, disease, and a multitude of other calamities?
Whenever a teacher mentions the word grammar in class, groans of frustration can be heard from most students. I have been a witness to English teachers who initiate their classes with a 10-minute span dedicated to reviewing grammar rules with clear examples of mistakes to avoid. This was in high school, but I am sure lower levels must also present the fundamentals of syntax, spelling, punctuation, and other writing niceties.
A man’s grammar, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
Poe doesn’t go as far as Montaigne, but he clearly hints at all kinds of problems caused by faulty grammar. A funny example often cited is the precious and neglected comma: “Let’s eat, grandma” is quite different from “Let’s eat grandma”, a true case of cannibalism. Therein lies the key to teaching proper grammar by making it a fun game in the classroom. Alas, very few teachers take the time to prepare their English classes in such a way. Grammar is always the poor relative who gets a minimum of attention.
“It is unfortunate and unfair, but every time you open your mouth, people immediately judge your intelligence, your education, and your upbringing.”
One contributor on Linkedin provided the above quote, which I can easily extend to writing, not just speaking. Politicians, for example, do not seem able to speak without reading a document obviously prepared by a well-educated aide, even if it is only a few phrases. It’s true that people can judge you by the way you speak; I have done this many times as a way to assess the person’s level of education and intelligence. It’s extremely useful in education and in business alike.
In the hard-fought discussion of the true meaning of Montaigne’s statement, one fact emerged that makes complete sense: Lawyers, as well as judges, make a living by interpreting laws. The first amendment of the constitution, for example, speaks of freedom of speech; it is still today the subject of endless discussions as to what exactly constitutes free speech. The same can be said of contracts between private citizens, as one wrong word may change the whole context, and, more ominously, in international agreements and treaties.
“..most of the wars, from that inability to express clearly the covenants and treaties of agreement between princes.” (Montaigne)
It is clear that he wasn’t joking when referring to the proper use of grammar and I would ask that the modern curriculum for English make more emphasis on the proper way to use the language. As it stands now, students arrive in high school without a proper training in reading and writing. We have cast aside Latin and Greek as dead languages, forgetting that they are the origin of our western tongues and culture. A thorough preparation in Latin grammar would allow our kids to excel in their spoken and written expression.