I went to my hotel after a long day at a homeschool convention. It was late, and I was hungry. So, after checking in, I decided to walk to a Subway I had seen to get a sandwich. By the time I walked out of the hotel lobby, clouds had moved in, and the rain was coming down pretty good.
As I ran toward my destination, I noticed, to my right, that the lawn of a local gas station had its sprinklers on. It apparently had some automatic mechanism that caused them to turn on and off–probably at the same time every day. But here it was, pouring down rain naturally from the sky, while the grass was getting an extra, unnecessary, artificial dousing from the sprinklers. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I guess it doesn’t hurt, although I imagine that water could be better used for something else.”
I think of this story every time I speak with parents who have their students studying Latin and English grammar. Often they will ask me which English grammar program they should use. “Why are you using an English grammar program?” I ask. The usual response is a blank stare.
Most parents–and most classical educators–are completely unaware that the study of Latin is in large part the study of grammar. And if, in studying Latin, you are studying grammar, then why would you want to spend additional time and educational resources studying grammar in English?
Of course, most people think that each language has its own grammar–English, Latin, Spanish, French, etc. So, if you study grammar in one language, that doesn’t transfer to the grammar of another language. But this is simply not true.
All languages work off the same basic grammatical structure and have the same parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. All languages make distinctions of person and number, as well as tense, voice, and mood in the case of verbs. All languages make distinctions of case, number, and sometimes gender in nouns and adjectives. All languages have ways of expressing time, quantity, and quality.
They do these things in different ways with a different set of vocabulary, but the basic distinctions of grammar are the same. That is why, in learning grammar in one language, you get at the fundamental grammar of all languages.
The best way to study grammar is in a language other than your own. Otherwise, you tend to see right through the grammar. By the time you begin real English grammar, you already know how to speak and write the language. You have to engage in the very abstract process of turning your gaze back on the thing you already know. This is like trying to look at your own eye without a mirror–it is not only frustrating; it is practically impossible.
Secondly, if you are going to study grammar, it is best to do so in a grammatical language. While English is grammatical in the way it uses verbs, it is very ungrammatical in the way it uses nouns and adjectives. English is not an inflected language (its nouns and adjectives don’t change their form to express the grammatical case in which they are being used).
If I say, “The boy loves the girl,” the word boy is the subject, and is spelled b-o-y. And if I say, “The girl loves the boy,” the word boy is now the direct object, but it is still spelled b-o-y. I cannot tell from the word itself what it is doing in the sentence. In English, the only way I can tell which grammatical function the word is performing is its location in the sentence.
In Latin, boy (puer) as the subject is spelled p-u-e-r. But boy (puer) as a direct object is puerum. It is spelled differently because Latin is an inflected language and the grammatical function of the word is in the word itself. I don’t have to look to see where the word is located in order to know what it is doing in the sentence. All I have to do is look at the word itself.
This is why when teaching Latin to English students you need to break them of the habit of thinking that the first word in the sentence is the subject. Since Latin is inflected, it doesn’t depend on word order—it depends on the form of the word, which expresses what grammatical function it is performing.
Because English nouns and adjectives don’t change their form in this way, the whole grammar of nouns and adjectives is hidden. You can’t see it. This is why sentence diagrams are so important in English. It is an artificial way to try to get English students to see the grammatical case system hidden in their own language. The problem of doing this, of course, is that it almost never works.
I have yet to meet a student who understood the grammatical case system by studying English grammar. If you think you have one at home, you can just mail him to our office and we will see if he really knows his grammar. And if you send a stamped addressed shipping box, we will send him back.
Finally, not only do you want to study grammar in a language other than your own (preferably an inflected language), but you want a language that is regular, meaning one without a lot of grammatical exceptions. The best language for this is Latin. Unlike other inflected languages, where countless exceptions exist, Latin is extremely regular. Students can count on (in almost every case) the fact that applying the rule works. It shows the underlying grammar of language in general in its clearest and most consistent form.
When you study Latin, it is raining grammar. Turning on the English grammar sprinklers won’t hurt anything, but given the limited time inherent in a curriculum, you should ask yourself, “Aren’t there other things I could be doing?”
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2010 edition.