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The Importance of Grammar
The Importance of Grammar

The Importance of Grammar

“Americans do not know English grammar. It is all the more ridiculous coming from someone like me with a Russian accent. I do nor mind the other errors in writing so much, but this one is the hardest for me to encounter, to work with, and to correct, because it represents a cultural phenomenon, and you are not responsible for it — the educational system is.

“Americans are trained (through the look-say approach to reading and all allied, Dewey-based ideas of education) to be emotional approximators. The nonobjective, ungrammatical way in which people express themselves today is truly frightening. What has been systematically undercut is their capacity for objective communication. Americans tend to express themselves guided by feelings, not by thoughts. According to modern theory, there are no such things as thoughts; and even if there were, they could not guide us.

“I am not a grammarian by profession. I do not know the grammatical rules of English by name, only by practice. But whenever I struggle with a sentence and finally get it straight, I bless whoever invented these rules and I know there is a reason behind them. If they were irrational, they would not survive. Sometimes grammarians do attempt irrational, arbitrary rules; but people do not abide by rules that complicate communication rather than clarify it.

“One of the most important applications of the Objectivist attitude toward reason is grammar. The ability to think precisely, and thus to write precisely, cannot be achieved without observing grammatical rules.

“Grammar has the same purpose as concepts. The rules of grammar are rules for using concepts precisely. Since sentences consist of concepts, the whole secret of grammar is clarity and the avoidance of equivocation. The grammar of all language tells us how to organize our concepts so as to make them communicate a specific, unequivocal meaning. If you compare the number of concepts we have with the vastly greater number of phenomena we deal with and have to describe by means of those concepts, you will grasp the importance of grammatical sentence structure.

“If it were not for grammar, we could have words but could not speak sentences. We could merely say, for example, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” That is the nature of primitive languages. Civilized languages, by contrast, have a grammar precisely because we deal with more than first-level, perceptually based concepts. If you have to deal with the abstract — with abstraction from abstractions — you must know in what order and by what rules to organize them in order to communicate a specific thought.

“We were all bored by grammar in school. Memorizing rules is very dull. But by the time you reach college, you should realize how important those rules are. Therefore, if you know why we should fight for reason, and for the right view of concepts, then let us — on the same grounds — have a crusade for grammar.

“Make it a rule to know sentence structure — to know which form communicates a thought and which is open to ten different readings — and you will understand the importance of grammar, not only for writing, but for cognition in general. You have to think grammatically. Do not accept ideas half in words and half with the feeling: “I kinda know what it means.” Formulate what you think, and why, in specific words, even when you are alone. This is why it is advisable, if the thought is too abstract, to make notes. When you make notes, you are obliged to put the thought into an objective form–not for your reader, but for yourself. Always reduce your convictions to a verbal formulation of your own. That is the first step toward grammatical clarity in your thinking, and toward making grammar and precision a habit.

“The difficulty here is that most of you today are so used to a subjective shorthand that you lose the distinction between your own inner context and an objective statement. It is permissible to use a mental shorthand in thinking, if it is clear to you. But a stenographer would be of no value if she could not transcribe her shorthand into a document in English. Similarly, when it comes time to write, you must translate your shorthand into objective language.

“If you have forgotten your grade school lessons, get a good good primer on grammar — preferably an old one — and revive your knowledge. You will be surprised how much more important it appears to you now than it did when you were a child. The reason is that today, in reading those dry rules, you know why they were formed and why they are rational.

“You will be surprised how much more important it appears to you now than it did when you were a child. The reason is that today in reading those dry rules, you know why they were formed and why they are rational.

“As to what your attitude toward writing should not be, the best image is ‘[Ike the Genius’ in The Fountainhead- the modern play-wright who says he is a creative genius, not a typist. Too many people today think: ‘I’m a creative genius, I’m above grammar.’ But nobody who thinks or writes can be above grammar. It is like saying, ‘I’m a creative genius, I’m above concepts’ — which is the attitude of modern artists. If you are ‘above’ grammar, you are ‘above’ concepts; and if you are ‘above’ concepts, you are ‘above’ thought. The fact is that then you are not above, but far below, thought. Therefore, make a religion of grammar.

“Apart from a review of grammar by means of a good primer, I would suggest the following. When a sentence of yours seems dubious, ask yourself some simple questions, such as: What is the subject and what is the predicate? Do the kind of grammatical analysis you did in school. You will be surprised at what you discover. For example, you may find that you switched grammatical subjects in mid-sentence. Also ask yourself whether your sentence has more than one meaning. Here you need the full context of your work, which is why I recommend you do this during the second stage of editing. Try to keep in mind the full implications of any generalized statement you make as you read it. Be sure not to state in the form of a general principle something you mean much more narrowly–an error that many beginners make, particularly when they deal with complex subjects.”

–Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, pp. 99-101

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