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Everybody Loves Grammar

David Cowles

Jan 16, 2024

“If the physical world isn’t structured according to the rules of grammar, the social world certainly is.”

No, not Gramma…and not Kelsey Grammer either; I’m talking about boring ol’ fifth grade Grammar. 

By the time you were two, you were probably already talking in more or less grammatically correct sentences. By the time you were six, you were probably learning to write. Now that you’re (finally) 10, you’re ready to learn what turns a particular jumble of words into a grammatically correct sentence. 

First, you’ll learn that a sentence represents (or is) a complete thought; then you’ll learn that all complete thoughts break down into three primary elements (stated or implied). Paradigmatically, a sentence consists of a subject (a noun, an actor, i.e., a person, place, or thing) and a predicate consisting of a verb (action or state of being) and a second noun (an object, direct or otherwise). 

You’re only one month into Grade Five, and you’ve already swallowed an entire ontology. Congratulations! You are the superhero (or monster) you’ve always imagined yourself to be! You swallowed a cosmos…but ironically, you narrowed your own world in the process. In the language of the schoolyard, your world now consists just of ‘bullies bullying the bullied’. 

Everything you needed to know about the world you learned in fifth grade. So, buoyed by your working knowledge of grammar, you are now well poised to become a slave owner, a colonial governor, a robber baron, a politician, or a gang leader. You understand the food chain, and you’d rather be near the top than at the bottom. 

Thank you, Miss Landers. If the physical world isn’t structured according to the rules of grammar, the social world certainly is. Better to be a subject than an object, right (wink)? 

Still, you’ll probably need to be even older before you think to ask Jane Banks’ question: “Are the stars gold paper, or are the gold paper stars?” (Mary Poppins) In other words, is grammar (paper) the way it is because it reflects the structure of the real world (stars), or do we perceive the world the way we do (stars) because we perceive it through the ‘lens’ of grammar (paper)? Does art (tech) imitate nature or nature art (tech)? 

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Grammar may or may not have anything to teach us about the structure of the cosmos, but it has much to teach us about the nature of an event. “Johnny hit Billy.” Hitting, per se, is an action, but it is not, in itself, an event. An action (hitting) only becomes an element in an event when it ‘acquires’ (designates, manifests, includes) a subject (Johnny) and an object (Billy). 

In our world, a virtual S-V-O sentence exhibits the minimum level of structural complexity needed to represent an event. While specific elements might be missing from particular sentences, they remain implied by the structure itself. Every event needs to designate, if only virtually, an action (or state of being), its genesis (subject, alpha point) and its terminus (object, omega point).

That said, we must be careful not to let the ‘external world’ bleed into the event itself. ‘Genesis’ does not include history, ancestry, or etiology; ‘terminus’ does not include consequences. In “Johnny Hit Billy,” the origin is ‘Johnny’, not the history of Johnny’s relationship with Billy, the ongoing abuse Johnny endures at home, or the fight Johnny had with his sister that morning. None of these is an element in the event itself.

At the other end of the barbell, a ‘cryin’ Billy’ is the conclusion of the event, not Billy’s tattling nor his retaliation or revenge. I’ll grant you, it can be difficult sometimes to say just when a given event begins and leaves off, but it’s necessary to be as precise as possible. 

An event is like Douglas Adams’ Michelin-starred Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Beyond the plate glass (membrane) lies sheer, chaotic multiplicity – a far cry from the order and studied intentionality within. 

Perhaps unexpectedly, this ontology turns out to be yet another expression of the famous Serenity Prayer. From the perspective of any given event, there is much that cannot be controlled. I cannot change my childhood, nor can I determine my children’s future. But between these two endpoints, there is much that I can and should influence. Order and chaos constitute a continuity, but a massively non-linear continuity. 

Think Gestalt! I can only perceive the duality of the image to the extent that I can clearly distinguish figure from ground and ground from figure. Likewise, I need to be aware of the clearly defined border separating holistic events from the chaotic multiplicity that surrounds them. If I fail, I might find myself teaching in the Sociology or Psychology Department at some university.

Wisdom, for its part, is the osmotic membrane between serenity and courage; it is the great gatekeeper, regulating the flow of information between the two domains. In our example, the event begins with angry Johnny and ends with crying Billy. It does not include the things that ‘caused’ Johnny to be angry, nor the things it ‘caused’ Billy to do afterward. 

Ontology requires us to walk a very, very fine line. The slightest wobble is likely to be fatal; there are no safety nets where you’re going! On one hand, we have a tendency to focus on the punch itself, forgetting the fact that there is no punch without Johnny and Billy. On the other hand, we are tempted to swell the event to include details from boys’ pasts, etc. We need supernatural wisdom to let us know when a new event is beginning…and when it’s ended.  

So maybe grammar wasn’t your favorite subject in elementary school after all.   

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