Monday, June 5, 2017

Grammar via literature

As I noted last time, the all-purpose reference book New Century Book of Facts, published early in the 20th century and reprinted for years thereafter, has both a section on language and one on grammar. The second reads like a continuation of the first. Skimming through this second chapter I found a few things worth a comment.

1. This section has much to say about literature, even though literature is the topic of yet another chapter in the book. That is because the authors argue literature is an effective way to teach good grammar. Learn from the best, in other words. Yet one can have good literature without good grammar, such as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the stories of Ring Lardner. Sometimes, too, the grammar found in great literary works, especially very old ones, may not be the grammar educators want to teach. William Shakespeare was known to use double negatives, for example.

2. "No childish life is complete without a love of poetry," the authors say. Children may eventually come to dislike poetry, but when very young they love nursery rhymes and other simple poetry. We remember some of these poems for the rest of our lives. "Rhythm always charms the ear and makes the blood quicken in our veins," they write. We don't lose our love of rhythm and rhyme as we age, so why do most of us lose our love of poetry? To be sure, modern poetry is less about rhythm and rhyme than it once was, but that change in poetic style was only beginning at the time this book was first published. Whatever our age, most of us love the rhythm and rhyme of the poetry in songs. It's just the poetry on the printed page that loses its audience as that audience matures.

3. This book states, "Yet the race began literature on this earth with poetry, and good poems existed long before good prose, so far as our historical records and legends testify." So is this true? Did good poetry really come before good prose? Certainly there were epic poems long before the first novel, but what about other kinds of prose? Might not good stories have been told around fires before those same stories were put into verse?

4. This reference book lists nine things related to reading and writing that a child should learn before entering the upper grades in school. Some of these, like being able to answer questions simply and directly and being able to recognize common words seem obvious enough. But then there is No. 7: "To recognize good from bad literature." That seems a bit ambitious. How many of us long past school days are always capable of distinguishing good literature from bad? Isn't this something literary experts argue about?

5. Finally this chapter on grammar devotes six pages to diagraming sentences. Imagine that. A sentence diagram, it says, "is something like a bird's-eye view of a sentence." That strikes me as a good line, but do we really need a bird's-eye view of a sentence? I never understood the point of diagraming sentences when I was in school, and I still don't.

No comments:

Post a Comment