“Why must we study grammar? I don’t want to go to college anyway; what good will it ever do me?” We, as teachers, sometimes hear these voiced questions either directly to us or in conversations the pupils carry one with each other. Is English grammar a “necessary evil” with which we can do without? Is it something only for the higher-educated individual? Is it a subject placed in the curriculum to challenge the brighter student and leave the slower learner completely in the dark? Or is it truly essential to all communication, written and oral? Is there a deeper purpose and reason to study this phase of learning?
According to Rev. H. Hanko in his paper prepared for several of our Teachers’ Institute meetings, grammar is “the ability to formulate sentences in harmony with the rules inherent in a language in order to communicate thoughts.” English grammar then, is based on rules which are essential to the English language; Latin, French and other languages have each its own set of rules – necessary to adhere to, if true communication is to take place.
Scripture itself reveals the truest means of communication: the Word. John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God shows us that even in the beginning, the WORD was manifest, in that, through Him, all creation was called into being. That perfection, that holiness, that power of speech belongs to God alone. Man’s speech before the fall was a glorifying, God-centered speech. When he fell, his entire person, including the faculty of speech, became corrupt. His speech before the fall was perfect: Adam did not split infinitives, dangle participles, use incorrect grammar in any way: his speech was perfect. After the fall, all changed and man used his speech in the service of the devil. We, too, by nature, want nothing of God’s “regeneration” speech. But, sinners though we are, we are nevertheless called to walk in perfection before Him…in ALL things. Consider the numerous passages of Holy Writ which enjoin us to be perfect in God’s sight. This means, too, in our language, oral and written. “Study to shew thyself approved of God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). This applies to each of God’s people, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, young and old.
A person’s first contact with grammar is made in his early years of life. “Baby talk” often violates the rules of good grammar more often than teen-age slang. Because it is all the child hears and is directly spoken to him, it is the phase of language learned. Children mimic their elders: customs, way of walk, mannerisms and language. Choice of vocabulary impresses a child greatly. An older person may inadvertently say some things which, to his way of thinking, is permissible; for the youngster to repeat the same words would not be tolerated. Too, the child wishes to be “big” and will repeat words which he doesn’t understand—the larger the word, the greater the sense of achievement to the challenged youngster!
Often members of a household know better than to speak in a certain form, but either because they want to be “funny” for the moment or do not wish to be outstandingly correct, will lapse into incorrect grammar. This becomes increasingly easier and less noticeable to everyone. The result, of course, is that it soon becomes the rule rather than the exception and another bad habit is formed.
Soon after a child begins to make known his desires and thoughts verbally, his parents emphasize certain forms. Instead of “me go with daddy,” he is told to say “I go with daddy.” Instead of using his name first in a sentence, such as “Billy wants the puppy,” he is told to say “I want the puppy.” He is learning, unconsciously, the use of the subjective rather than the objective case for the subject of a sentence in the first example and a form of the pronoun in the second. Of course, he doesn’t know WHY they are correct, nor do his parents tell him at the time…but at the same time, he is learning the very fundamentals of English grammar!
As the child develops a greater vocabulary and literary sense, he is ready for the more intricate, formal phases of grammar. He must know the parts of speech – the differences between nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions and prepositions – their definitions and how they are to be recognized. He then puts this knowledge to use in constructing sentences, thereby following the rules governing subjects and predicates. With an ever-increasing vocabulary, he becomes more and more adept at putting his thoughts into writing or oral expression. He becomes skilled in writing various kinds of sentences, inverting the order of a sentence to avoid monotony, making colorful, interesting descriptions, attempting logical comparisons and presenting convincing arguments.
As he reaches junior high school age, the student becomes familiar with direct and indirect object, prepositional phrases, clauses and phrases and other grammatical structures. Grammar becomes an integral part of reading, writing and speaking. After much practice, he is no longer aware of the rule demanding that “a plural subject requires a plural verb” but automatically follows the rule. From being a hesitant, unsure individual groping about for words (as a child), he has reached the stage of selecting from a wide vocabulary and ways of speaking, so that he can think ahead of his speaking choosing carefully and knowing that in the end, he will be understood. A knowledge of these fundamentals makes his reading clearer and his other subjects certainly more understandable. His writing, too, should gradually show more fluency of thought, accurate accounting and description and concise analysis.
By the time young people enter high school, they should be able to speak and write correctly and fluently. Book reports, term papers and essay questions provide excellent opportunities for growth in written expression. And woe to the student who says, “I know the answer but don’t know how to put it down!”
A fundamental knowledge of English grammar is essential to understand everything read – this everyone will readily agree to. How much should one apply himself then, when, in order to know God’s revelation, he is to read the Holy Scriptures! Time and again, one finds a passage difficult to understand only because he skipped the key word or failed to interpret a mark or punctuation! Perhaps if there were more diligence in studying God’s Word, more time spent in daily reading (from the day a child learns to read…yes, even from the time he memorized the 23rd Psalm), one would not hear the cry that things pertaining to God’s kingdom are too difficult to comprehend in our day and age; that the church papers are too doctrinal; that even the Bible is too difficult to understand and should be written in modern day terminology. True, more words are being made very day in industry, business, science and everyday living. But should it be necessary to adapt Scripture to our everyday vocabulary because it makes it “clearer and more meaningful” – substituting you and your for thee, thou and thine? For making virgin mere maiden? Some are inclined to think this is necessary. Others are in favor of changing our confessions as well (see Editorial of the Church Herald, March 27, 1959). And all can be traced to the fact that reading in the Biblical “terminology” is too difficult or irrelevant. But what say WE? Let us be aroused to the danger at hand! By the grace of God, may we be filed with a longing to seek Jesus, overcome with a sense of our inadequacies and sinfulness, assured of His faithfulness and love for His people – and go to His wonderful Word! Let us go to our confessions and His Word and read them regularly; let us study the means whereby our ministers teach us that Word: our periodicals; let us delve into the arguments of the apostle Paul and follow them step by step! Only through frequent repetitious study can we know our distinctive truth and be able to defend it. Only by a thorough knowledge can we witness of God’s marvelous works, whether it be orally or by the written word. Oh, God, grant us the faith and strength that we too may study to show ourselves approved of Thee, workmen “that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth!”
Originally Published in:
Vol. 19 No. 4 May 1959