The Grammarless Age


‘AND I’m going to fail just like George did, because I have n’t had any grammar either.’ It was the protest of high-school Mary against a system that had sent her brother, unprepared, to cope with the problems of freshman college-English.

‘But,’ I consoled her, — with the argument that I had so often heard advanced, — ‘you are studying Latin, and you will learn grammar in that way.’

‘No, we don’t study Latin grammar any more.’

And I began to understand why the classics have fallen so low in the estimation of modern educators. Interested, however, to discover, if possible, the secret of their methods, I asked my little friend how she studied her Latin.

She brought me her book, and very glibly translated Sagittā hostem fugavit, ‘With an arrow he put to flight the enemy.’

‘But how did you know that sagitta is not the subject of the sentence?’ I inquired.

A blank stare met my question.

’Why is it not in the nominative case.' I persisted, trying hard to make myself understood.

Still no response; and it dawned upon me that I was using technical terms, terms that in the minds of modern educators should find no place in the vocabulary of a fourteen-year-old child.

‘Never mind, Mary; just tell me why you translated sagitta as you did.’

’Because it has the long mark over the a, and that always means with, from, in, or by,’ she enlightened me.

So the secret was out. The long mark had replaced the ablative case in the up-to-date Latin text. I did not suggest to Mary that in her future studies in Latin she might stumble upon an old-time edition that had no long mark, not even punctuation or spacing to divide words and sentences in the confused assemblage of Roman characters. But I pondered long the vital difference between the ‘ablative case’ and the ‘case with the long mark,’ and could make of it nothing more serious than the old quibble over tweedledee and tweedledum.

The ignorance of fundamental principles that marks the average highschool graduate continues to draw from the college instructor unmistakable criticism of the present-day methods of teaching. Certain much-heard defenses of the new school of pedagogy have become almost platitudes, so necessary are they in extenuation of a system which will have a child know little of the difficulties of mastering a language, and less of the joy that results from achievement under such difficulties. The old saw, ‘No royal road to learning,’ has been relegated to the rubbish heap of exploded theories. The teacher of Virgil interests her pupils — I wonder why I use the feminine pronoun? — with modeling in clay the scenes at Dido’s court. The instructor in mathematics inculcates the principles of Euclid by means of pyramids and tetrahedrons which the pupil, often with tedious and tearful endeavor, has evolved from a piece of cardboard. The English pedagogue, finding no such tangible methods of demonstrating the relation between subject and predicate, resorts to a wellknown maxim: Teach the child to speak correctly by putting before him specimens of only the best English, and he need never know there is such a thing as grammar. We, too, would resort to this method were there not in the simple formula a condition quite impossible in democratic America, where, from nursery to parlor, — and may I dare whisper it? even in our very schoolroom,— the boy hears specimens of much that is not even good English.

I remember, still, the afternoons when I was kept in for the grammar lessons I had not learned. How I hated conjugations!

I have sinned.

Thou hast sinned.

He has sinned.

I had been forced to write it ten times, and had each time inserted in parenthesis, ‘The teacher has sinned,’ wondering whether I dared leave it there when I handed in my slate. ‘What a system!’ I hear the modern pedagogue exclaim, and how thoroughly at that period of my history I should have agreed with him!

But I have been spared the humiliation of receiving from my college professor such a criticism as, ‘You can never hope to pass this course until you know the difference between a verb and a preposition,’ a criticism I saw subjoined to an essay that contained the expression would of gone. The writer of the essay was an intelligent boy, but early habits were stronger in him than specimens of the best English, and without grammar he could see no reason for discarding would of. The instructor suggested that he repeat his preparatory work, but he replied hopelessly, ‘They only teach Shakespeare and Milton in the high school, and I’ve studied both of those.’

Again from the mouths of babes and sucklings comes the wisdom that is denied their elders. The brain of this poor boy had been perplexed over such anxious questions as, ‘Was Hamlet really mad?’ ‘Can Milton’s views on divorce be justified by modern standards?’ ‘Do Chaucer’s poems give evidence of a happy home life?’ until he saw in a return to the classics little hope of mending his speech.

The grammar school has banished from its curriculum the study of grammar; the refuge it sought in the high school has been denied it; the college, overwhelmed with the problem of dealing with five hundred freshmen ignorant of the knowledge and the discipline that come from the study of grammar, has time to give it but passing mention. Pushed thus from its rightful domain, grammar must needs flee to the graduate school, where the philologists may delight each other with learned disquisitions as to whether

they ‘had rather’ or ‘would better’ say, ‘It is me.’

And we must sit in darkness while the doctors disagree!