The title and subtitle of this book by the British educator and retired businessman N.M. Gwynne are slightly misleading. Yes, Gwynne’s Grammar is a guide to different parts of speech, punctuation marks, and the proper use of commonly misused words and phrases. However, it’s also a manifesto.
Throughout the English language and the classrooms where it’s taught, Gwynne wants to see emphasis shifted from the self (and self-expression) to the tradition that self is part of. English grammar has changed over the centuries, he concedes, but these changes came gradually and with the approval of “our ancestors,” who “both improved and guarded it.” Therefore, we must continue to guard it today, rather than accept changes as inevitable. Regarding the classroom, he advocates for a return to the rote learning of his own youth: “Contrary to education theory most widely propagated today, memorising should come first, preferably starting before understanding is even possible.”
His reverence for tradition is especially apparent in the chapter on “The Grammar of Verse-Writing.” He deplores the free-verse poetry written by those such as Ezra Pound, because “lines in accordance with regular, pre-determined rhythms, sometimes with rhymes at the end of them, were the indispensable basis of all poetry.” As the form lacks meter and rhythm, he writes, it’s impossible to distinguish between heartfelt and hackneyed free-verse poetry.
Gwynne’s insistence on rigorous adherence to the rules of grammar may seem to threaten writers’ individual style. Shouldn’t rules and form take a backseat to creativity? Who cares if a poet has something to say and doesn’t follow the rules of meter, or if a prose writer has something to say and doesn’t follow the rules of grammar?
Gwynne counters that he’s not ruling out the importance of style, but putting it in its right place: “Technique must come first, and only when mastery of technique has been achieved are you ready to move on and develop your style.” He later adds: “For most of history, the purpose of writing, as of all art, has been recognized as that of contributing, in however small a way, to making the world a better place. It was not considered to be that of writing about oneself and of self-indulgently exposing one¹s insides, as is the case with the much modern poetry so-called.”
In other words, it’s not about you. You, a writer, are part of a tradition that has set rules for good reasons—not just arbitrary ones, as many insist—and your work is very, very rarely special enough to justify breaking from that tradition.
As a journalist, I found Gwynne’s message. Growing up amidst the prosperity and free-spiritedness of Silicon Valley, I took it for granted that writing was primarily a means of self-expression. Looking back, though, I wish I’d expressed things more substantive than my self, which usually consisted of hunches and prejudices.
Writing isn’t about sharing yourself with the world; it’s about communicating (or as Gwynne puts it, contributing). That’s not to say that we can’t enrich our writing with personal experiences and viewpoints—I did so just a few lines ago—but that our selves need to take a backseat to our subject. I only mentioned my own experiences, briefly, after summarizing and analyzing Gwynne’s Grammar.
In its more conventional, but still compelling, parts, Gwynne’s Grammar lays out the rules of grammar and style. (For the style section, Gwynne adapts The Elements of Style—not the more familiar version adapted by E.B. White from his former professor, but the 1918 original written by Strunk alone.) It’s unafraid to enter controversial areas, as when Gwynne comes out strongly against split infinitives. Some of Gwynne’s pronouncements strike me as arbitrary—who gets to decide which rules to change and which to guard?—but he always presents a strong case.
More troubling is that Gwynne’s old-White-guy tone threatens to alienate those who could benefit most from his message—progressives who love literature and care about education, especially as it relates to social justice. Gwynne’s argument that teaching the science of grammar should precede the nurturing of creativity is often, and wrongly, associated with the cultural conservativism of Whites yearning for the “good old days” that only they enjoyed.
Gwynne does nothing to dispel this association. He is unapologetically nostalgic for his schooldays (“Time was when even the most ordinary education included training in competence at writing verse.”), and makes no mention of the changing demographics of both Britain and the United States.
However, a prescriptive, more rigorous approach to grammar could help the same people Gwynne overlooks. Picture a teacher in an inner-city, largely Black and Hispanic classroom, working with criminally limited resources to close the achievement gap between her students and their wealthier peers. Starting off the semester, she needs to decide between a) having her students free-write without regard for form or grammar, as long as they “express what makes you you,” or b) have her students memorize the rules of formal academic English and write analytical essays.
Option a) is often portrayed as an act of liberation: She’s giving her students a voice in a society that often silences them! But after her students leave school, what happens? They may lack the writing or speech skills necessary to succeed in higher education or search for white-collar work, or to otherwise communicate with people in positions of power. Option b) is more tedious, but gives her students the skills they need to succeed in the long run. That’s liberation.
The situation above is, of course, a false dichotomy. Teachers can both nurture creativity and teach the rules of grammar—the teacher above could make her students proofread their free-writing projects. However, as Gwynne stresses, the nuts and bolts must come first. I hope there are grammarians out there advocating for a prescriptive, more rigorous approach to teaching English, without Gwynne’s nostalgia for less inclusive days.
–Available 9/2 from Knopf