Monday, October 13, 2008

Why you should love grammar

Grammar isn't really that stuff they teach you in school.

Call that stuff, "textbook grammar." Not that it's bad, per se, but it's tuned for a very specific purpose: that of separating people from a style of communication that roughly matches their spoken words, and engaging them in more academic-voiced stuff.

For those of you who know me (in person or on forums) you know that I've written quite a bit of academic stuff. What I remember most about that is how I had spent years trying to remove the word "I" from my texts, and then had to go about reintroducing it. My dissertation talks about "I" and what "I" did in my study, because it's as important to know who the researcher is and how her perspective influences the way the study was conducted as to discuss the results themselves. Talking about researcher influence and its possible ramifications is one of the ways to reduce its effects on actual results.

The grammar I love is real grammar - descriptive grammar, you could say. And it's used differently in speech from the way it's used in academic work, and differently again in fiction, but it's powerful stuff.

Grammar is what frees you from context.

Start, as one of my professors once did, with a doctor in the surgery room. Everybody in that room has highly congruent training; everybody in that room is there for an express purpose, one that they all are familiar with; everybody in that room knows who is in charge. So when the doctor says "scalpel," that's all he or she needs to say.

Or take children learning to talk. Most often they babble and point first, and then they move to the single-word stage. One word that my kids both made great use of was "that." When you think about it, it's a great word. The child says "that" and the parent following after them has to guess from their actions, facial expressions and physical context what they want. Believe me, it's not always easy to tell what "that" is, when an array of possible objects is present.

Okay, so what about writing? Words on a page, divorced in time and location from their initial use, depend on grammar to show relations that would ordinarily be shown by context. Who is doing an action, what they're doing, and what they're doing it to - there's subject, verb, object. It goes on and develops in complexity from there.

Imagine a written message taped on someone's door:

"Meet Julie at 1:00 at Borders bookstore."

The context of the note hanging on the door makes us guess that the note is intended to be read by the person to whom the door belongs; the sender is unknown, but could be the same as the receiver (a reminder note) or someone else. Julie is quite a likely candidate. Notice also what isn't present in the note: the date.

This is where things start to get interesting, because pragmatic implication comes into play. If any piece of information is missing from the note, the reader will automatically infer that that information is already known to the sender and receiver. The lack of a date implies the nearest instance of the hour 1:00 - i.e. today. The appearance of Borders Bookstore implies the nearest instance of that particular bookstore (or alternatively, one known to the receiver of the message).

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00 at Borders bookstore."

Now we know for sure that someone is supposed to meet the sender of the note, but we no longer know who that is. We can also infer that the receiver must know who "me" is, because otherwise that information would be specified. This is related to the maxim of quantity in Grice's cooperative principle, which essentially says "give as much information as required, and no more than is required."

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00 at the bookstore."

Notice that it wouldn't work to say "a bookstore" because the two people would never meet. "The" implies that the meeting will take place at a bookstore that both people are familiar with.

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00."

Now because the information about location is suddenly missing, we are forced to assume that the two people have already agreed on a location for meetings, just that the meeting time must be specified.

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at the bookstore."

With no time information present, we must conclude that a time has either been agreed upon, or that the time should be the nearest time available, i.e. "now."

So while grammar's purpose is to supply missing context, it actually can do as much in its absence as it does with its presence. In these examples, we use our instincts to fill in and draw conclusions about what kind of information must be known by the sender and receiver of the message in order for it to be a "well-formed" message, or one that can be successfully interpreted by the intended receiver.

This is why I love grammar.

What do you think about it?