I began collecting old grammar books when I wrote the Writing Essentials course. It was fun. I found the green one we used in high school circa 1963. Someone had thrown it in a dumpster. But one of my favorites is from 1891, called Maxwell’s English Grammar: Advanced Lessons. Who wouldn’t like a grammar book that has a chapter called, “The Economy of Attention”?
Maxwell begins his preface with a quote from John Stuart Mill which reads as follows:
Consider for a moment what grammar is. It is the most elementary part of logic. It is the beginning of the analysis of the thinking process. The principles and rules of grammar are the means by which the forms of language are made to correspond with the universal forms of thought. …. The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.
It occurs to me that he is saying what we all have been practicing, that putting words onto the page is a way to understand and clarify our thoughts. Making sure that our sentences make sense, then, requires enough revision that logic emerges so we can share out thoughts. Grammar helps us make sure our “forms of language” communicate.
Perhaps the best definition of grammar I’ve found comes from the out-of-print book, Pinckert’s Practical Grammar (published in 1986 and still available from Amazon’s used book sellers). He writes:
In a sentence, all the words are related to each other; grammar is the attempt to explain the relationships.
Part of the fun of writing, to me, is finding that the things I have discovered on my own, show up in books about writing. We are all writing to discover what works and what doesn’t. We are all turning ourselves inside out to probe what we honestly know and figure out how to express that. We stand on our heads to shake loose new ideas so we can put two and two together and enjoy the surprise when they equal 97.
Is grammar dry? Perhaps not. Perhaps to consider how the words go together is one more way to peer into the gloom to find solid ground. Then, I’m guessing, we can let logic wrestle with our lurking love of chaos.