Education

Grammar: The First Art of the Trivium

Introduction

The first of the liberal arts is grammar.

The Trivium

Trivium is shorthand for three skills:  grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Together with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music they make up the liberal arts. In the current year, a liberal arts degree is simply a degree in reading texts and critical theory.

What is Grammar?

Grammar is primarily the study of understandable language.

Grammar goes beyond simple language, though. C.S Lewis reminds us that ancient grammar instruction included syntax, etymology, prose, the explanation of allusions, history, and eventually scholarship in general. Lewis even remarks that “everything we should now call criticism belonged to either grammar or rhetoric” (The Discarded Image 186-187 and 190).

Why Grammar?

While you may find it boring, here are four reasons you should study it:

  1. Grammar is the art of clear use of language. With grammar, we explain our thoughts precisely.
  2. Grammar forces us to study language at the technical level, making it more useful to us.
  3. Understanding grammar and usage allows us to deviate from it for rhetorical effect (more on rhetoric later).
  4. Grammar, learned after the language itself is acquired, reminds us that minute learning is almost always the key to advancing our knowledge.

Tips for Improving/Teaching Grammar

  1. Use actual grammar exercises like those available here or here.
  2. Do not drill grammar into children who do not have love language. This serves to make them dislike reading and writing, which means that the mechanics of grammar will be useless to them.
  3. Read frequently and broadly. If you’re a teacher or home school parent, have your children read old books, new books, poetry, fiction, articles, and fun books. Pro-tip for teaching children to read: use old comic books like the original Fantastic Four.
  4. Write often. Also, practice writing. It’s likely that in this very blog post, I have made grammar errors.
  5. Think of grammar as an aspect of pedagogy. Every subject has constituent parts (like grammar rules). Without them, the subject is meaningless. For more on this, read Dorothy Sayers’ essay: The Lost Tools of Learning.

One Commnet on “Grammar: The First Art of the Trivium

  1. It is difficult to say at what age, precisely, we should pass from the first to the second part of the Trivium. Generally speaking, the answer is: so soon as the pupil shows himself disposed to Pertness and interminable argument (or, as a school-master correspondent of mine more elegantly puts it: “When the capacity for abstract thought begins to manifest itself”). For as, in the first part, the master-faculties are Observation and Memory, so in the second, the master-faculty is the Discursive Reason. In the first, the exercise to which the rest of the material was, as it were, keyed, was the Latin Grammar; in the second the key-exercise will be Formal Logic. It is here that our curriculum shows its first sharp divergence from modern standards. The disrepute into which Formal Logic has fallen is entirely unjustified; and its neglect is the root cause of nearly all those disquieting symptoms which we may note in the modern intellectual constitution. Logic has been discredited, partly because we have fallen into a habit of supposing that we are conditioned almost entirely by the intuitive and the unconscious. There is no time now to argue whether this is true; I will content myself with observing that to neglect the proper training of the reason is the best possible way to make it true, and to ensure the supremacy of the intuitive, irrational and unconscious elements in our make-up. A secondary cause for the disfavour into which Formal Logic has fallen is the belief that it is entirely based upon universal assumptions that are either unprovable or tautological. This is not true. Not all universal propositions are of this kind. But even if they were, it would make no difference, since every syllogism whose major premise is in the form “All A is B” can be recast in hypothetical form. Logic is the art of arguing correctly: “If A, then B”; the method is not invalidated by the hypothetical character of A. Indeed, the practical utility of Formal Logic to-day lies not so much in the establishment of positive conclusions as in the prompt detection and exposure of invalid inference.
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