Grammar porn

At the age of 57, I’m finally going to come out of the closet and say it: I love grammar! I always have, ever since I was a child, but I’ve always kept my passion hidden for fear of being labelled a nerd. Of course, family, friends and colleagues always knew I loved languages and was good at them, but I don’t think any of them realize just how much I love grammar in particular.

Grammar is like music: a body of rules and principles that are beautifully logical and which work together to produce perfectly tuned, harmonious sentences. Its primary purpose is to convey information, but at its best, like music, it can stir feelings and emotions, moving the listener or reader to laughter and tears.

I’m not talking here about grammar in the sense of those tiresome rules about our own language we’re forced to learn at school. I’m talking about the whole caboodle, the system that underlies an entire language, the structure on which it is built. Because that’s the thing: grammar is a system, however random and arbitrary it may seem to the casual observer. Furthermore, it’s a very finely-tuned system, made up of interlinked subsystems. Examples of these subsystems are the phonology of the language (its system of sounds), the verb system (the conjugation of verbs, the interplay of tenses and moods), the noun system (involving gender, number and countability) and the lexicon (yes, that’s a system too, not just a disorganized mass of words!). It can take a good while to realize how these systems work and interact because you need to see a lot of the language before you start to recognize them, which is one of the attractions of studying a language in depth over an extended period: you are constantly making new discoveries about the nature of the system, and as your knowledge of the system grows, so do your competence and proficiency in the language.

Because the reality is – despite all those new-fangled and pseudo-scientific methods out there that promise grammar-free language learning – you cannot go beyond a superficial and very basic level in a foreign language without studying its grammar, at least some of it. Of course, there are ways and ways of presenting grammar and explaining it: you can do it in a very traditional, academic way or you can do it in a more accessible, ‘pop’ way. It’s also important to remember that learners do already know how to use grammar because their mother tongue has grammar too. They are usually unaware that they know how to use grammar, but they do. So we can utilize that in the teaching process by drawing their attention to features of their own language that they have almost certainly never noticed or stopped to think about, and then make comparisons with the foreign language.

Not only do I love grammar, I also love grammars. (Do you see what I did there? I made use of the feature of countability in English to make a distinction between ‘grammar’ and ‘grammars’. English native readers may never have heard of countability or stopped to think about it before, but they instinctively know that ‘grammar’ when used uncountably means ‘grammar as a discipline’ and that ‘grammars’ used countably means ‘grammar books’. That’s the beauty of grammar right there!)

So I have a collection of grammars which I like to dip into for light reading when indulging my secret passion. The nice thing about looking into the grammar(s) of many different languages is that you notice differences, of course, but also many similarities, sometimes even universals. There can be useful synergies, for example: the way a particular grammarian describes a particular feature of, let’s say, French, can be applied to a different language, such as Portuguese. The languages don’t have to be related for this to be possible: for instance, while reading a grammar of Chinese, which drew a distinction between narrative and expository sentences to explain the use of the sentence-final particle le, I had an epiphany about the use of the present perfect in English and how I could better explain its use to my Brazilian students.

I love all the terminology, too. Oh yeah, talk grammatical to me, baby! Apart from the terminology that is common to most languages, particular languages have their own special features and corresponding nomenclature. For instance, Greek has aorist tenses, Slavic languages have perfective and imperfective verbs, Chinese has coverbs, Chinese and Japanese have measure words (also called classifiers) and sentence particles, Finnish has a whole gamut of exotic case names (e.g. inessive, elative, illative, adessive, allative, essive, translative, abessive, comitative and instructive), Arabic has broken plurals and verbs of wonder, as well as a group of similar-functioning verbs quaintly referred to as ‘[the verb] kaana and her sisters’.

For me, the best grammar books are the really detailed ones, the ones that leave no stone unturned, no question unanswered, that aspire to be exhaustive, preferably with lots of footnotes detailing exceptions and oddities. But I also like my grammars to be practical and readable, easy to navigate if you want to find the answer to a particular query, but written in a continuous flow, so you always want to read on further from the point you have accessed. And, of course, there should be plenty of carefully selected and well translated example sentences to illustrate the rules in action, preferably with some of them at least taken from a corpus or real-life sources to ensure naturalness and authenticity.

Nowadays, I not only read grammars, I write them too. Actually, I’ve been writing them for myself since I was a child (my darkest secret!), but in recent years, I’ve started writing them for others and having them published. I feel really fortunate to have been able to turn my passion into a profession.

So, in the true spirit of forbidden pleasures and internet porn, I’ll close this post with a pic of some hot GIRLs (Grammars I Really Like). If they get your juices flowing, you may be a kindred spirit:

 

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