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.

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