Academic Exchange Quarterly         Spring  2003: Volume 7, Issue 1



The Four Basic Principles of Grammar

Peter Kratzke, University of Colorado-Boulder


Kratzke teaches for the University of Colorado-Boulder's Program for Writing and Rhetoric.



Abstract  Grammar is better approached through principles than rules.  Four basic, sequential principles answer almost all issues: a functional sense of the eight parts of speech, the integrity of the clause, ellipsis, and restriction.  Through awareness of these principles, teachers and students alike might dispel the mystery of grammar and thereby improve their sentence craft.


In T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Sir Thomas More reaches the spiritual conclusion, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason" (47).  Although the stakes might seem smaller, writing clear, accurate sentences is, for many students, treasonous business.  Theirs is often an erratic education built on intuition and subjectivity, never mind that the kind of written discourse demanded of them in college and the workplace is logical and public.  In response, teachers are prone to formulating grammatical laundry lists, sometimes calling errors such as sentence fragments or comma splices "Deadly Sins."  This reactionary spirit might be well meaning--call it tough love--but it can also intimidate, making grammar seem an unassailable monolith.  Responding to that response, I aim to demystify grammar, giving students basic tools as they proceed across and beyond the curriculum.


Grammatical issues--and larger terms of rhetoric, for that matter--are usefully approached given what legal theorists call principles and rules.  To define, principles are statements of substantive objectives while rules are directives that, when implemented, confirm the originating principles.  Concern over public safety, for example, generates rules limiting traffic speed.  However, erratic enforcement of those rules creates instability in actual roadway conditions.  Just how erratic is the question on every driver's mind: at what increment should speeding violations actually be cited?  Obviously, if everyone who drove 26 in a 25-MPH zone were cited, we would need many, many more traffic officers.  On the other hand, when enforcement loses its feeling of being universal, public, and tangible, we cry injustice, the law rendered unstable.  To arbitrate, we have judges--not clerks.


For composition teachers, the distinction between principles and rules is analogous to that between romantic description and classical prescription.  At risk to descriptive grammar is ambiguity, to prescriptive grammar pedantry.  The former taps what I call fluency, the latter literacy.  This difference is apparent, notably, in the control many native speakers have while speaking but not writing and that many ESL students have while writing but not speaking.  Ambrose ("The Devil's Lexicographer") Bierce, in distinguishing that we are "conscious of what we feel; aware of what we know" (20), all but anticipated the effect: although native (which is to say, fluent) speakers rarely commit idiomatic errors, they are only conscious--but not aware--of grammatical rules.  Theirs is a fluency of intuition (best expressed, "I know what I like is I like what I know"), and, consequently, they not so much control language as are controlled by it.  In contrast, ESL (which is often to say, literate) speakers are aware of grammatical rules but only conscious of principles.  This literate-but-not-fluent ESL state is exposed, predictably, in idiomatic errors such as "I runned yesterday."  Theirs is a literacy with little feel or flow.  Their prose, in other words, answers the logical what and why but not the functional how and when.  Of course, I am using polemical terms: because our students might not be able to negotiate advanced trigonometry does not mean they cannot handle arithmetic; likewise, because they are not fully literate does not mean they sign their names with an X.  Neither strict fluency nor strict literacy, then, amounts to a systemic view of how principles and rules are dynamically related.  That view, I argue, is central to judging how language creates meaning and, thereby, writing well.


Here, I propose a mathematically elegant approach: the syntactical relationships among virtually every word, phrase, and clause can be explained given four key principles.  In this economy of terms, the mystery--the mysticism--of grammar is dispelled, the functions and forms of grammatical units explained in clear, precise, yet flexible terms.  The labyrinth of handbooks is made straight.  Teachers can respond efficiently and heuristically to errors, not just correct them with red ink.  Indeed, these four empowering principles, I believe, allow us to teach critical reading and writing in something of a new light.  Instead of hoping vaguely that reading or imitation will inductively bring students to improve their sense of voice and style as created through syntax (semantics is the other principal concern), we can clearly explain the rhetorical causes and effects of grammatical constructions.  Students can thus improve what truly matters: the skills they take with them at semester's end.


Principle #1: A Functional Sense of the Parts of Speech


Over the last decades, tests have repeatedly confirmed what seems obvious: teaching the eight parts of speech will not change student writing skills.  Whether with the rather diabolical linear sentence diagrams of yore or the newer, phrasal structure trees, learning grammar as a sort of abstract puzzle does not translate into performance.  Who, I wonder, ever thought it would?  After all, being able to find a large cylindrical item toward the front of an engine and call it an alternator does not define a mechanic, but, just as obviously, being able to do at least as much is integral to becoming one.  Likewise, identifying parts of speech has little to do with writing, but understanding grammatical functions has a great deal to do with rhetorical choices attendant to rewriting.  If, as most teachers agree, writing is a recursive process, this orientation is as important to composition as arithmetic to factoring polynomials.


In the 1960s, Case Grammar attempted to develop a functional sense of the parts of speech, substituting, for instance, subject with the more descriptive agent (Williams 120).  The attempt, although interesting, only emphasizes that terms such as noun are in themselves strange and unhelpful, but the principle of noun-ness (or, perhaps better, noun-hood) is essential.  As such, students must move beyond defining nouns as people, places, or things; rather, they must see that nouns function to name.  In a different example, knowing the acronym FANBOYS might be useful, but only if students can identify that conjunctions function to join, either coordinating or subordinating sentence elements.  In the 1970s, TV's Schoolhouse Rock attempted to answer the problem by giving Captain Crunch-munching kids a dose of functional literacy.  I'm not sure the spots succeeded.  When I sing to my classes, "Conjunction Junction," they--who were not born when the spots first aired--almost uniformly finish, "What's Your Function?"  "What indeed?," I ask archly.  Faced with that question, they fall silent.


To train a functional sense of the parts of speech, I direct students to "follow the bouncing ball" through their own sentences.  The exercise quickly comes to roadblocks, parts of speech either changing with different sentence functions or defying categorization altogether.  The first problem surfaces in all kinds of sentences: "The chairman banged the table and tabled the motion."  The second problem may transcend the terminology of the eight parts of speech altogether.  In "To throw the ball is good," "To" is an infinitive marker, a function beyond the purview of the eight parts of speech.  In "The man filled up the gas tank," "up" is a verb particle (i.e., part of a phrasal verb), not a preposition.  In "There are people in the room," "there" is an expletive.  The list goes on, so much so that the resulting ad hoc terminology only contributes to grammar's mystery.  We may assure students, though, that there is nothing to fear because the parts of speech neatly outline underlying functions to virtually all words and phrases.


Verbal constructions deserve special mention.  Indeed, without a functional sense of the parts of speech, teachers confronting verbals would be left fumbling with their chalk, mumbling unintelligibly.  How else can we explain--much less teach the grammatical beauty in--a seemingly everyday sentence containing a transitive verb with a transitive gerund phrase as its object: "I love hitting the ball."  In a less mind-bending example, students have no problem detecting the problem with "That's me book," but fluency and literary collide when gerunds are coupled with possessive pronouns: "My going to the game is costly."  Other vexing verbal constructions include infinitives functioning as adjectives ("I need a book to read") and the ever-insidious dangling participle.  In the case of verbals, it would seem, one can take the form out of the function, but one can't take the function out of the form.


Principle #2: The Integrity of the Clause


Fundamental to grammar is the clause.  Because the relatively impersonal nature of academic discourse entails writing in complete sentences, students must be able to dig through the sand of a sentence's modifying elements in order to identify the granite of its simple subject and simple predicate (i.e., only its necessary elements).  By so doing, students come to see that, if all subordinate elements are sifted away, clauses tolerate no interruption.  Without understanding this integrity, students will never achieve grammatical precision.  "Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function" continues by answering its own question: "hooking up words and phrases and clauses."  "What's a clause?," I ask my students.  To break the resulting silence, I have students identify the subjects and predicates in their own writing.  It doesn't take long to discern whether students can stop equating nouns to subjects and verbs to predicates--in other words, whether they can discern subject-ness and predicate-ness.  Notable problems are compound constructions and, in the case of predicates, transitive and linking verbs: stitched together, "Bill and Tom are tall and throw the ball."  Auxiliary verbs (and, so, tense, voice, or mood) also emphasize phrasal units: "I am going to the store."  When students thus consider phrases (and even clauses) in the same way they do single words, they have taken a major step toward mastering grammar.


From ESL to advanced writing courses, a time-honored game combining the first two principles--Socrates used it on Plato, for all I know--is for students to challenge each other to construct increasingly complex sentences built with specific grammatical elements, much as they would in playing a game of h-o-r-s-e in basketball.  The game starts with a simple sentence: "Mary writes a proposal."  What follows reveals whether students have more than a rote sense of the eight parts of speech.  For example, when asked to add an adverb, students who truly understand grammatical function will choose words such as never over mere adjectives with -ly endings.  From that point, the game proceeds to larger units, including, perhaps, adding a second independent clause to create a compound sentence: "Mary writes a proposal, and Hank watches television."  An adverbial phrase might follow to make the sentence complex ("Before going to the store, Mary writes a proposal, and Hank watches television") or a second proper noun added for a compound subject ("Before going to the store, Joe and Mary write a proposal, and Hank watches television").  Further modification might add subordinate clauses, appositives, or the like.  The idea, of course, is to show students why meaning depends on syntactical relationships.  The game also spins some sentences that would do Lewis Carroll proud.


Principle #3: Ellipsis


Ellipsis begins in the role of syntax.  For instance, to the comment, "I only received the letters yesterday," the wise guy responds, "You didn't open them?"  Although this misplaced modifier doesn't impede spoken communication, it does reveal how, because English has relatively little of the grammatical glue enjoyed by other languages, we must pay close attention to the role of syntax in written communication.  Conversely, word order often means no words at all, sentence elements dropped because we speak so quickly or wish to eliminate redundancy.  This principle, called ellipsis, is less substantive that the previous two; some grammarians might subsume it with the clause.  However, ellipsis is so pervasive that I've found it worthwhile categorizing it as a separate principle.  After all, it does have its own bibliographic punctuation. . . .


To emphasize the importance of ellipsis, I mention to students how Tiger Woods goes through his swing in slow motion, carefully minding what otherwise goes by too quickly.  Likewise, when we slow sentences down, all sorts of grammatical constructions emerge.  Sometimes, our writing is better served by “reinserting” these latent elements, a practice that calls to mind the Seinfeld episode in which narrative details are omitted with "yadda yadda yadda."  In this vein, to the book title, The Man Nobody Knows, we might reinsert the personal pronoun whom, thereby emphasizing the humanity of the title character.  More frequently, though, awareness of ellipsis is less about inserting more words than finessing fewer: "The country has made us, not we ourselves"; "She is a better student than I."  One could do worse than to take Bud Wilkinson, who coached the legendary Oklahoma Sooners of the 1950s, as invoking the muse of ellipsis: "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add," he advised his team, "but when there is no longer anything to take away" (Hoffer 94)


Principle #4: Restriction


Full awareness of sentence construction entails the principle of restriction (to what extent words, phrases, and clauses modify other elements).  Sometimes, we wish to supply extraneous information, with no real emphasis; at other times, we want demonstrative finger pointing.  The difference between indefinite and definite articles provides a semantic entry point.  The National Park Service has no need for indefinite articles, instead promoting "Go Climb The Mountain" (Mt. Rainier) and "Go Jump in The Lake" (Crater Lake).  Coordinate adjectives up the ante a bit.  For nonrestrictive elements (i.e., adjective order is of no consequence), we use commas: "a slow, deliberate approach."  However, in Budweiser's phrase, "genuine malted barley," syntax matters, one adjective restricting the next, and, so, no comma.  The hyphen also plays its part: "After the nineteenth century, twentieth-century authors felt depressed."  Even more substantively, restriction directs the effects of subordinate clauses.  In the sentence, "The author criticizes the gullible, who deserve ridicule," the comma is crucial, for to restrict the meaning of "the gullible" would imply that there are the gullible who deserve sympathy.  To such examples, one can almost see the light bulbs go on over students' heads.


If clear writing involves a style by which we must--not might--communicate, restriction is fundamental to literate punctuation.  Whether or not we or students like it, punctuation builds on a logic nearly as formal as the moves of chess pieces.  How a sentence sounds might help with punctuation, but fluency is only a beginning.  Rather, punctuation directs how grammatical boundaries are or are not restricted.  Without understanding those boundaries, students resort either to guessing or to tricks of sentence patterns (e.g., students often think colons function only to set off lists, not to separate clauses from substantiating information).  To complicate the problem, literature, the domain of "great" writers, can be downright terrible!  As Bierce once put it, "Poets are a lawless folk, and may do as they please so long as they do please" (63).  For students facing mid-semester grades, Bierce's words aren't much help.


Of all punctuation matters, commas are by far the most treasonous.  Most of the time, students use commas as they would breath marks in sheet music, suggesting the right moments for readers to gulp for air--"punctuation by respiration."  The trap of punctuating this way is that students will succeed most of the time, and they won't need to memorize some silly list titled "The Ten Magic Rules for Comma Use."  Unfortunately, "most of the time" translates to a less-than-desirable accuracy.  Rather, by identifying the relationships among words, phrases, and clauses, students see why punctuation involves almost no guesswork.  Comma treason, though, persists at the "highest" levels.  Open a magazine and note how journalistic style omits the comma in restrictive clauses having embedded nonrestrictive elements: "The advertisement shows that if one consumes beer, he will be fine in the morning."  Another notable error, probably stemming from copy-editors who follow prescriptive rules and not logical principles, is omitting the comma after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items.  Yes, then is the time to troop out the Frost chestnut about appositive adjectives from "Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening": "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" is a long way from "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep."


The four principles I have identified are sequential, one building onto the next.  To understand a clause, one must have a functional sense of the parts of speech.  To perceive ellipsis, one must firmly grasp what constitutes a clause.  And, to use restriction, one must recognize all elements of a sentence, present or not.  At grammar's mountaintop is the lowly comma--seemingly insignificant but quite telling.  To use commas, one needs to draw on all four principles, demarcating grammatical boundaries and thereby directing syntactical relationships.  Instead, students wave off punctuation errors as mere mechanics--a somehow incidental and separate category policed by "comma cops."  In response, we should point out that punctuation errors stem from grammatical incomprehension, a lapse in the basics.  Basic, I tell my students, doesn't mean easy.  In fact, the ultimate level of achievement in almost any skill or discipline is determined not by exploited strength in advanced abilities but by revealed weakness in fundamentals.  As the world gets increasingly complex, students take some comfort in this truth.


Works Cited


Bierce, Ambrose.  Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.  New York: Neale, 1909.


Eliot, T. S.  Murder in the Cathedral.  1935.  London: Faber and Faber, 1968.


Hoffer, Richard.  "Our Favorite Dynasties."  Sports Illustrated 10 May 1999: 90-95.


Williams, James D.  Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice.  2nd ed.  Mahwah [New Jersey]: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.