A Few More Thoughts on Grammar

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

We are returning for a moment to the “what we study and why” section of this series. I did a post on language already — both foreign language and all the fun stuff like grammar and spelling — here, but I have recently read a short article by Henry Zylstra that has made me reconsider some things.

In “Formal Discipline Reaffirmed,” [from Testament of Vision Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958)], Zylstra argues for a formal or prescriptive approach to grammar as opposed to a normative or descriptive one. I did not think I would come down on this side of the argument but he has some lovely things to say that I do find convincing.

Simply put, there are two ways to consider the field of English grammar. One way, which Zylstra favors, is prescriptive. This means it tells us what grammar should be. The alternative is the more modern, normative approach which describes the language as people speak and use it. It is more scientific, but Zylstra argues that it stays on the surface and does not look at principles.

Though Zylstra acknowledges that language is psychological and sociological and even biological, he argues that:

” . . . these natural dimensions of language do not exhaust it. There is that about it which reaches beyond the natural into the rational or spiritual, and it is precisely this aspect of it which is normative, definitive, and ideal. What I object to in functionalism is that it ignores this spiritual reach of language.” (p. 168)

For those who fail to see the spiritual aspect of language, remember that God the Son is called the Word and that God created by His Word. It is through the Word that He communicates with us. “In studying language, consequently,” Zylstra tells us, “one is studying something more permanent and universal than popular speech practice. One is studying the truth of that reality which reason apprehends . . . reason informs language. Language . . . is expressive of principle” (pp. 168-69).

The Greek word logos which we find identified with Christ in John 1 contains the notions of both reason and word:

“Logos is only half translated word (language), the other half being reason (thought). It is the keyword to the rational nature. It is the keyword also to the human being . . . Language therefore distinguishes man: it proves him rational, free.” (p. 169)

It is for this reason, Zylstra tells us, that classical education placed grammar alongside logic. The modern version of classical education misunderstands this, making grammar a preliminary stage which is about memorization and not about thought.

Zylstra once again inspires me, as anyone who loves his subject is apt to. He is a bit short on the practical details and I wish he gave some examples or some indication of how this all works in real life. He does speak briefly at the end of a student studying Beowulf  and how he can then learn “what the sentence is, magnificent embodiment as it is of mind speaking, seen as a whole and in its parts: substantive, predicate, complement, and modifiers” (p. 171). I have some sense of how words enable us to not just express but to understand and encapsulate ideas. How this works on a broader plane, how it expands when we look at sentences and paragraphs and the like is not something I have considered or grasped yet.


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