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Using an academic approach to grammar learning

A WORD, PLEASE:

August 30, 2006|By June Casagrande

I have two new kittens: Tibor and Maddie. They're shelter babies, brother and sister.

Maddie's the looker, complete with a perfect Charlie Chaplain mustache. But Tibor's the talented one. He fetches. And I don't mean he kind of does something that could be interpreted as fetching. I mean he chases his little pink soccer ball, grabs it in his mouth and then runs back to me and drops it at my feet for me to throw — over and over again. The amazing thing is that we never taught him. He just started doing it, perfectly, right from the get-go. (In case you don't believe me, I'm posting proof at grammarsnobs/kitties.com.)

How did Tibor know how to fetch? And, more importantly, how — oh, how — am I going to segue from this self-serving kitty ditty into a grammar column?

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Two words: Noam Chomsky.

Though best known for his positions on politics, Chomsky is actually a linguist and father of one of the most influential theories in his field: the idea that grammar should not be seen as set of external rules but as a description of something our brains know without being taught — an "internalized grammar," an unconscious knowledge that we pick up during childhood. It's the reason a 3-year-old might say "I want candy" but already grasps why he wouldn't say, "Candy want I."

So what would Chomsky say about Tibor's amazing innate fetching knowledge? I think it's obvious: "Leave me alone. I've got important things to think about."

This Chomsky stuff is just one of the fascinating things I've learned by reading a real live, bona fide grammar book. Not a style guide. Not a usage guide. But the type of book that's so academic it's officially called "a grammar." Specifically, it's the "Oxford English Grammar," and in the several years since I first opened it, this book has proved that there's a lot to be gained by taking an academic approach to adult learning.

For example, professional editors and copy editors might know that "everyday" is one word as a modifier, as in "everyday values," but that it's two words when using "day" as a noun, as in, "We offer these values every day." That's the kind of thing you learn from a style guide. But you can study those till the cows come home and never really understand the difference between a phrase and a clause.

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