Monday Morning Blether

Grammar for an 8 year old

I have always admired Richard Feynman, a great scientist in his own right, also particularly famous for exposition of science to all ages and abilities. I encourage you to spend 30 minutes chasing quotes and clips on the net, it will be the most educative half hour of the year.

There are various quotes attributed to Feynman saying that - my paraphrase - there is much more to knowing a subject than just being able to name things. You don't really know anything unless you can explain it clearly to an 8 year old.

Some background chat this month got me looking up some fine points of grammar. I found a reference on the nytimes site which claimed:

The aversion to splitting infinitives is strongly held in some quarters, but weakly supported.

I think this is a great phrase, but I don't agree with it. That got me wondering what I did agree with, and whether I could explain it in a way of which Feynman would approve. I'm sure that I cannot come close to his style, but anyway, here is my attempt.

Grammar is a set of rules about the structure of sentences. It ensures that sentences make logical sense and can be understood by the reader. In particular, sentences often contain little sub-structures, phrases of a few words that belong together. The minor rules of grammar say that these sub-structures should stick together, they should not be split by other words.

For example, in the following:

she is the person I gave the present to

there is a sub-structure of "to the person" which has been split and separated, so that the single word "to" hangs by itself at the end. This breaks a minor rule of grammar

Does this matter?

Well, if your sentences are short and simple then it doesn't really matter. Sub-structures can be split up in short sentences, but never very far and everything can still be understood. The rule seems pedantic.

Beatrix Potter and e e cummings contain lots of examples of this sort of thing.

However, what if we make everything more complex, add more words, clauses, description? That changes everything:

she is the lovely, kind person I gave, just last Xmas, the enormous present, all covered up in shiny wrapping paper, to

Ouch! Now that "to" sticks out horribly and the sentence is much harder to decipher. As your sentences get longer, with more clauses, more description, more digression, pulling in more ideas, contrasting some, contradicting others, diverging views, generally getting more and more like this one, then grammar gets ever more important.

Dickens and A. S. Byatt contain lots of examples of that sort of thing.

If we try again, this time following the minor rule:

she is the lovely, kind person to whom I gave, just last Xmas, the enormous present, all covered up in shiny wrapping paper

then it can be clearly understood again, no matter how many adjectives you throw in.

(Writing that example was great fun! I encourage the dear reader to boldly go and try one yourself :) )

So...

If your sentences are simple you can rearrange the order to get the best impact from individual words. As they get more complex you need to follow all the minor rules of grammar closely to maintain clarity. Good writers should know the difference and adapt as appropriate.

That's all there is to grammar.