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Grammar and the Real World

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Read through a business journal and you will learn of businesses that cannot find employees to fill required openings; read through a political journal and you will learn of special interest groups complaining that not enough Americans are employed. Something is wrong with this picture. What can explain this gap between companies which want to employ, and jobless individuals who cannot find employment?

A common complaint from businesses is that the writing ability of their applicants is subpar — to say the least. For instance, Business Insider has written several pieces on the abysmal state of writing in America, particularly among young college graduates. Here is an illustrative cover letter sent from a real job applicant to a real employer. Let’s call the author, Legion:

“My skills consist of being great at multi-tasking, great with computers, patient, bilingualism (fluent Spanish) reliable and having very flexible hours. I am 24 years old which is why I think this position is a great fit for me.”

Someone’s written work provides key insights into their thinking abilities. What does Legion mean when he says his “skills consist of being” great at multi-tasking? If he could create a complex excel document while playing Beethoven’s Fifth, that might be worth mentioning. Apparently he believes being flexible, too, is a skill, as though the capacity to eat one’s lunch at Two O’clock instead of One is a sought after trait. To top it off, this unemployed college grad attributes the fact of his age to the reason why he is perfect for the position. Unless he is ten years old applying to be a child that doesn’t work.

This is not semantics. An employer may not parse out this cover letter as I have done, but any thinking man will sense something amiss. What this letter reveals, even if the employer has not identified it, is a lack of thought. Legion is oblivious to the way that he has presented himself to potential employers. What he has done is much worse than if he were to show up to an interview in ripped jeans and sandals; it’s more like showing up and revealing he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes.

Grammar is the science which studies a process of thought. It teaches us how to understand our own thoughts, and the thoughts of other people. Grammar provides the principles to guide our thoughts, much like astronomy provides the principles to guide space travel. It is not an arbitrary grammatical rule that subordinate clauses must be logically connected to main clauses, such as when Legion states that his age is why he is perfect for the job. Any small effort in thought would reveal to him that one’s age is irrelevant here. Astronomy studies physical space. It defines and discovers the facts about the universe, so that people can create technology capable of withstanding the rigors of space travel. Similarly, grammar defines and discovers the facts governing the relationships between words, so that people can construct more and more complex thoughts. For instance, if Legion had studied grammar, he would have carefully considered the relationship of “skills” to “consist.” Consist, after all, is his predicate (verb); it’s what he is trying to say about his skills, they consist of something. Now, what do they consist of? being patient and greatness at multi-tasking. No student who has analyzed hundreds of sentences, and understands the job that every word has in a sentence, could make such a grievous mistake as to claim being patient is a skill. Surely, adept students can make mistakes. But to claim that one’s skill consists of being patient is an admission of a lack of skills.

By studying grammar, a student gains control over their thinking. A grammar student would have studied so many inane sentences that they could automatically identify that something is wrong with this letter. Then, they could — if they chose — analyze and understand why it is wrong. Since they will have diagrammed (visually represented) the core of many sentences, a student of grammar would intuitively know that the core of Legion’s sentence is “skills, consist” and an awkward “of being.” They will know that all those prepositional phrases are modifying the verb “consist.” They would want to know what kind of verb consist is. And then how all of the prepositional phrases relate to that verb. What a student of grammar develops is more than the ability to identify a verb or a preposition; they will develop the ability to think.

Whether a student desires to become a writer or a banker is irrelevant, because all professions require thought. The actual skill of parsing out sentences will have to some degree become automatized in them, by the practice of asking questions like “what kind of verb is this,” and “how do these adverbial phrases modify the verb?” After years of grammar school what they will be capable of is thinking grammatically.


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