Columnists > Soul Food

Logos of language

How the rules of grammar reveal mysteries of God

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

If economics is the dismal science, grammar may be the abysmal science-the black pit of syntactical minutiae that has swallowed many a preadolescent. Breathes there a lad with soul so dead who never to his teacher said, "Why do we have to learn this stuff?" What do parts of speech and sentence structure have to do with finding a job or filling out a tax return or living life? Only this: The study of grammar reveals the operation of a most amazing gift.

To imagine life without grammar we need look no further than the fictional city of Lagado, visited by Dr. Gulliver on his Travels. At the celebrated Academy, certain learned professors have developed the theory that "in Reality all things imaginable are but Nouns."

Therefore, language can and should be simplified-this will make it more honest and save wear and tear on the lungs, so everyone will live longer. Some theorists have simplified discourse to the point where they don't talk at all: Since "words are only names for Things," the most learned men of Lagado carry about with them suitable objects of discourse, holding "conversations" by taking items out of sacks and showing them to each other. A side benefit of this system is that no schoolboy in Lagado will ever be asked to diagram a sentence. But neither will he be likely to experience an idea.

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If an animal "thinks" at all, it probably thinks in nouns, or concepts-its brain a warren of things, each connected to concrete experience. Hunger is an empty stomach; fear is a fang or claw. Such communicative abilities as it has are given for survival; any kind of speculative discourse is impossible. But to understand hunger when one doesn't feel it, or imagine fear when there is nothing to cause it, is to leap the great chasm between the beastly and the human; between God's work, and his image. How is this accomplished?

I could use some elegant words with precise meanings in this paragraph, but without the rules of syntax I would no more be understood than, he pedantic a catechizes in peal scribble cryptic. Follow me you? The rules that burden schoolchildren and occasionally pop up to slap us adults on the wrist ("Hey! You have a dangling participle here!"), tedious as they may seem, are what allow the language to function. If I make sense now it is because I adhere to standard English form: Subjects come before verbs; adjectives always precede the nouns they modify; every preposition must have an object. Even when the rules appear to be broken, an overriding principle allows for it.

Like bone structure, language structure is logical but not rigid. It provides the framework that we may then flesh out in words. The rules of grammar weave a net to catch our meaning: We can explain the steps for a computer program, describe a poignant memory, make a friend laugh, demolish a faulty argument or construct a sound one. As we use it, we find that language not only expresses our thought but shapes it; without it, we could hardly think at all. And grammar is the underlying logic of language, the logos that holds it together.

This is wonderful enough to ponder, but even more wonderful is how we learn it. A five-year-old can express abstract thoughts in complete sentences so complex most of us would have trouble diagramming them. But even so, we do understand, because the child is (unknowingly) following the rules. What is very difficult for a machine (as anyone knows who has run a document through a computer translator or grammar check) is literally child's play for us. We pass on the patterns of language so effortlessly it seems miraculous.

Not miraculous, in the dictionary meaning of that word. But it is a gift. Our heavenly father has scored our minds to perceive the logic of language patterns because he wills more for his people than that we merely survive in a noun-based world. He speaks to us. He has bread for our minds and hearts. This is what, for me, turns a seemingly pointless exercise into a jolt of discovery. Every correctly diagrammed sentence uncovers a bit more of the astonishing gift of language that elevates us to a place a little lower than the angels, and all to the praise of his glory.

The next time your sixth-grader complains about grammar exercises, tell him that!

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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