Against the background of the last chapter, I find myself provoked into raising a question of some moment. Have I your attention, dear reader? Here is the question.
Is this book that you have in your hands, in a way that really does matter, the single most important book in print in the English language today?
At most, I am only partly joking. What I am trying to do is to make a serious point as arrestingly and vividly as I can. I certainly deny that what I have just said is com- pletely absurd. Let us now see if it is at least defensible.
As has just been shown, and as was stressed by Libby Purves in the previous chapter, all thinking and communicating of any kind depend on grammar—grammar being simply the correct use of words, and words being the indispensable tools of thought.
Indeed to dismiss the need for the accuracy in grammar that only reasonably diligent study and training can give is almost self-contradictory. You need correct grammar even to be able to argue as convincingly as you can against the need to learn grammar.
To proceed. If every human activity depends ultimately on language, all that is left, in order to assess my claim, is to weigh up whether or not this book does the particular job it sets out to do better than any other book on grammar in print today.
There is one significant difference between this book and any of its predecessors and contemporaries, and indeed between this book and any other book setting out to teach any academic subject. This book does not only teach what must be taught. It also tries to teach how best to teach what must be taught, for the purpose of making sure that the learner will absorb, understand and remember what he or she is trying to learn.
I have listed those aims—absorb, understand and remember—in that order, because it is their order of importance. The order of teaching those three elements should be the opposite. Contrary to education theory most widely propagated today, memorising should come first, prefer- ably starting before understanding is even possible—that is, before what is commonly called the age of reason, about seven. The period before the age of reason happens to be the age when memorising is easiest. It is also the age when the vital task of memory training is most effectively done.
This very much applies to some of the material in this book, which, as stated in Chapter 1, needs to be learnt by heart for it to be most useful, or indeed in some cases for it to be of any use at all. I know this from the many pupils of all ages that I have been teaching in recent years. Merely to understand a rule is almost never sufficient. Unless it is memorised, and in such a way as to keep it in the memory, all too soon, typically, children are as incapable of apply- ing the rule as if they had never come across it.
I can “hear” protests. “It is not treating children with the dignity they deserve to stuff their memories with what they cannot understand.”
Do not believe it.
First, no such objection is made to children’s learning the genuinely incomprehensible “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo.”
Secondly, I repeat that the period before they reach the age of reason, at about seven years old, is when children find learning by heart easiest of all; and we are hardly being cruel by spending part of that time giving them a bank of knowledge which is ready and waiting to be used as soon as they become capable of using it and giving their memories valuable training at the same time.
Thirdly, contrary to what is often supposed, children typically relish doing it. If you doubt me, you might like to visit the Gwynne Teaching Web site. There you will see some of my youngest pupils reciting—sometimes for con- siderable periods of time—things they do not yet understand, such as multiplication tables and Latin nouns and verbs, often beaming enthusiastically as they do so.
If I have made something of a case in answer to the ques- tion at the beginning of this chapter, my main purpose has been less to boast, you my readers may be comforted to learn, than to stress yet further the supreme importance—supreme practical importance—of what you and I are en- gaged in together as you go through this book. My aim in doing so is to persuade you to be prepared to take on the genuinely hard work of tackling the science of your lan- guage, whether you be pupil or teacher. Just reading this book will achieve relatively little, however enlightening and helpful you may find what you read. What is in this book must be mastered. How best to set about doing this will be discussed in Chapter 9.
Excerpted from Gwynne's Grammar by N. M. Gwynne. Copyright © 2014 by N.M. Gwynne. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.