Independence Through Accuracy

Independence Through Accuracy

by Joseph Tabenkin, Boethius Fellow

Grammar has a reputation of being rigid, arbitrary, and limiting. This echoes a more deep-seated idea in education: that there exists a conflict between instruction and independence. I think quite the opposite is true. In fact instruction, far from limiting your agency, unlocks it. In a study of grammar we see one way this can be achieved.

Consider a toddler, overwhelmed with emotion, unable to articulate or express the cause of their tantrum. They lack the infrastructure of language needed to express themselves in a clear and nuanced way.

Learning to be more accurate with our use of language helps us progress from toddler to adult. Studying grammar offers the scaffolding that can enable us to express ourselves more fully by helping us understand the nuance in language.

Here is a silly example. There is an important difference between “Let’s eat Grandma.” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.” I don’t think anyone would mistake your meaning and think you intend to eat Grandma. I think most of us would sense that something sounds wrong with this sentence. However, without knowing the principles of grammar, we would feel helpless to fix the mistake. We would be stuck, like the toddler, unable to understand, express, or fix our unease. We would become dependent on an expert to help.

From personal experience, as someone who did not learn the principles of grammar as a child, I had long felt dependent on others to review my writing and I have felt the apprehension that comes with this kind of uncertainty. There are few things as terrifying to a young person as hitting send on a business email not knowing if you used too many commas or too few. I had been “liberated” from a childhood of instruction and rigor but, far from experiencing the promise of unbound self-expression and independence, I had not developed the skills needed to achieve this state of being. If we have a desire to help our children and students become clearer and more accurate thinkers, the best thing we can do is provide them with a rigorous education that includes a study of grammar.

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