The importance of grammar: A talk by David Crystal

One of the things I realised in the last few months since I started my PhD here at the University of Sheffield is that education and the education system itself are not only about the receiving and disseminating of information (yes, ok, and promoting certain ideologies and more problematic aspects of mass education – but TBD) but rather a pool of exciting opportunities to explore interests. Just to name a couple of example, in the last 6 months I had the incredible opportunity to meet not only my long-time admired author and linguist David Crystal, but also attend (for free!) a fabulous talk by Grayson Perry, met Richard Blair, son of Eric Arthur Blair, known for his pseudonym pen name George Orwell, and Prem Sikka). Therefore, education is about allowing learners to GET EXCITED about everything.

Including grammar.

Grammar got such a bad rap, I want to say in the last decade, but it has probably always been hated by the young and old alike. It’s a bit like math in that sense. A subject that has useful, important and fascinating potential is reduced to mere basic functions, a series of ‘bits’ that learners are asked to identify, circle, sum up, divide, multiply… and that’s pretty much it. Chopping up language into adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, objects, actors, agents, is left at that. A futile exercise that is not connected to the ‘real world’, the ‘outside’, where language is used.  And this is what David Crystal is here to show us and remind us, that to get students excited about grammar, it’s not about how flashy your ‘board work’ is, how well you put presentations together, but whether the teacher can help their learners use the tools of language to get where they want to go.

In fact, Crystal does not use powerpoint. Or Prezi or any other visual crutches. For an hour and a half, Crystal captivated over 100 audience members with nothing more than his own voice and brilliant mind. He delivers his talk with funny anecdotes that constantly bring back the point that grammar is but the building blocks of communication, not a workbook exercise.

Crystal begins by pondering on what I’ve just outlines. “Most people think of grammar as boring”, he announces. “If that’s what you think of grammar then you are wrong!”. And with that proclamation he takes the audience on a journey of understanding the importance of the ‘bits’ that make up grammar to our daily lives.

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We are absorbed in David Crystal’s talk and he doesn’t even have slides.
Grammar, as outlined earlier is made up on small particles such as nouns (e.g., table), verbs (run, walk), adjectives (beautiful, smart), prepositions (of, at, in), adverbs (quietly, beautifully). And teachers and the curriculum puts a lot of time and effort getting learners to identify, highlight, circle and underline the various particles. But, as Crystal rightly suggests, just because you know to name all the parts of the car (break, steering wheel, accelerator, cup holder), doesn’t mean you can drive. And in the same vein, just because you can name all the linguistic features, it doesn’t mean you can write a good story that would captivate your audience, if what you wanted to be was a writer. Being able to name the ‘bits’, as Crystal calls them informally, is only the beginning of your journey to meaning making.

One of the anecdotes Crystal uses to illustrate this point struck a chord with me. Although I always had it in the back of my mind, as an English teacher myself, it was always my primary mission to make sure the students were able to identify the grammar point whether it was a particular tense we learnt or vocabulary. Although we definitely emphasized ‘correct’ use of these structures, it was still the more boring part of the class. As hard as I tried, it was always hard to make grammar exciting. And Crystal was similarly asked by one teacher he observed to do just that – make the learners excited about grammar. One girl he spoke of wanted to be a writer, like her most favourite writer Terry Pratchett. (Of course, Crystal tells this better than I do, with funny emphasis and voices).  She wanted to write a story about an old, rundown house at the top of a hill and she came up with this sentence:

The old ruined house stood on top of a hill.

Crystal then asked if the adjectives ‘old’ and ‘ruined’ could be moved around to make:

The house, old, ruined, stood on top of the hill.

Asking which one of these sentences was better, the girl immediately was able to say that the second is better because “it’s creepy”. And in this way, grammar can contribute to the construction of atmosphere in writing.

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Once the learner was made aware of the rule that adjectives can be placed after the noun for a more ‘creepy’ atmospheric effect, the need for knowing the grammar ‘bits’ is no longer arbitrary and boring, but serves a real world purpose.  The general principle with grammar that drives language is that language is a tool we use to communicate with each other, create meaning. And it is meaning that is at the heart of language. But how does this meaning created in language actually conveyed? Is it inherent in verbs? vocabulary? Do words carry meaning in themselves? For example, ‘table’ is polysemous, it can mean many different things in different contexts. In different sentences, the word ‘table denotes different meaning.

But what is the reason for this variation in meaning? Crystal goes on to highlight two branches of linguistics that focus on different meaning aspects. The study of meaning, the semantic approach, and the study of the reason of variation in meaning – the pragmatic approach combine to make grammar “come alive”.  The example Crystal gives to illustrate this point is in the active-passive, where the meaning in the sentence remains the same in either voice, but the emphasis and direction of given information is altered.

In his riveting talk, Crystal highlights the every-day real world issues made meaningful through language use, built from the bricks of grammar. Every point of grammar can be examined from a pragmatic and semantic angles and all the options and choices we can make in selecting one tense over another, a sentence structure over another helps us convey our identity, feelings, thoughts and emotions with others.

I am grateful to David Crystal for coming to the University of Sheffield to give this talk and to the EngSoc for making it happen. I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to meet one of my favourite linguists who have inspired me through their writing to become one.

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