Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Notes: Introduction

First, the good news. If you’re a native speaker of English, you already know English grammar. Every native speaker of English over the age of two or three (at least those without some sort of developmental issue) knows English grammar by the time they reach the age of two or three years old, though they may still be refining certain points well into their fourth year. If you didn’t know English grammar, you would not be able to construct, or understand, an English sentence. Which, obviously, you can – you’re reading this, aren’t you?

Why do we need this class, in that case? We need this class because there is a different between the focal knowledge of a subject and the tacit knowledge of a subject.

If you have taken philosophy, you may have run across Plato’s theory of True Knowledge versus True Opinion. Plato tells us we only have True Knowledge of a thing when three points about it are so.

We have True Knowledge about a thing when
1.    The thing is true
2.   We believe the thing is true
3.   We can explain to someone else how we know it

So, to take a mundane example, there is a way to Tulsa. That’s true, I know it’s true, and (if you let me use a map), I can explain to you how to get there. I have true knowledge of the way to Tulsa.

On the other hand, take the fact that the world is round. It’s true that it’s round, I believe that it’s round – but can I explain to someone else how I know that it’s round? Some of us can do this – they have true knowledge. But many of us cannot. They only have what Plato calls a true opinion.  The difference between true knowledge and true opinion is the difference between focal knowledge and tacit knowledge.

For most of us, our knowledge of grammar lies in the area of true opinion. It is a tacit knowledge of grammar. We may believe we have a right answer about a certain grammatical point (or even just think we have a right answer); but we usually cannot explain why our answer is right.

Why does this matter? Well, for a couple of reasons. True opinions – tacit understandings of things – are risky. They may be true. But on the other hand, they may very well not be true.

We all have examples of things we thought were true – things we had true opinions about – that turn out not to be true. (Take, for instance, the belief many of us once held that the blood in our bodies is blue and only turns red when it hits air; or that eating/drinking a certain diet will “detox” our body; or that people only us 10% of their brains; or that in the “old days” women got married in their early teens; and so on.)

Just as looking at the evidence – and getting into the habit of explaining and supporting our knowledge with evidence – can change false knowledge to true knowledge about these things, so we can change our false understanding of grammar to true understanding of grammar by learning to understand linguistic facts and follow the chain of reason and evidence.

Second, many of us will end up as teachers. Now we can, of course, fall back on the tactic some of our teachers used with us: “This is true because I said so.” But we’ll be far more effective teachers if instead of using the blunt instrument of authority we can explain why a certain grammatical rule is true – if, that is, we have true knowledge of grammar.

Third, grammar is much more interesting and much more complex than many of us have been led to believe. This semester will introduce us to some of the complexities. There is not always, in fact, a right or wrong answer to a grammatical question. When you have true knowledge of grammar – a focal knowledge of grammar – you’ll be in a better position to make editorial decisions, and stylistic decisions about which grammatical usage is correct in a given sentence. Without that focal knowledge, you will have to rely on the authority of others; and you will find that those authorities very often do not agree.

Further, and worse, you will find all too often that those in authority are wrong. Unless you have a focal knowledge of grammar, you’ll have no way to be certain they are wrong, and no way to explain to them (or yourself) just why they are wrong.

Standard Grammar v. Non-Standard Grammar v. Not Grammar
Have a look at these sentences:
·        James studied architecture during his three years at Yale.
·        Ivy invited both Turner and I to Thanksgiving dinner.
·        Evan said he had already went to that movie.
·        It ain’t a thing you can do with that boy.
·        Top with chair turnip the on lesson blazing.

Most of us would agree that the first is standard grammar. Many would also accept the second is also standard grammar. Some will accept the third.

As we reach the third, some of us start shaking our head. That’s not English, some of us say. What we say next depends on how much we know about grammar. We might say it’s just slang, or it’s gutter talk, or it’s lazy English, or even that it’s not English at all.

Well, obviously it’s English, and obviously it’s English grammar. How do we know it’s English grammar? That’s simple. You understand what the sentence means, and you couldn’t do that if it wasn’t a sentence with English grammar.

For comparison, look at the last sentence, which does not have English grammar. You have no idea what that sentence means. The words are English, but there is no English grammar. Because of that, the sentence is meaningless.

What we’ll be learning in this class is – mainly – the rules of Standard American English grammar. But we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that Standard American English grammar is (a) only one variety of English and (b) an artificial construct, for the most part.

What do we mean by that – an artificial construct? Well, just as no one really spoke or wrote Classical Latin as their mother tongue, no one really speaks or writes Standard English as their mother tongue. It’s a constructed language, which all of us have learned in schools and in the public sphere and which we share as a mass communication device. Some of Americans did learn a dialect very like Standard English in their homes – they’re the lucky ones.

Others had to learn much about Standard English once they reached school. Some of these were taught that their home dialects were bad, or lazy, or inferior. This, of course, is not true. Every dialect of English is just as rich, just as old, and just as useful as the dialect of Standard English. It’s just not the dialect of the public sphere – which is to say, it’s not the dialect used by universities, or by those who will be doing job interviews, or by those in power.

We’re teaching you Standard American English Grammar not because it is superior in any factual or moral way – it’s not – but for that reason alone. It’s the language of those in power, and the language of the public sphere. Without it, you (and your future students, if any) will be cut off from that public sphere, and cut off taking power.

So you need to learn this. But don’t make the mistake of believing that better grammar makes you a better person. It’s just a tool, albeit an essential one.

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