Ancient and modern

Do spelling and grammar still matter?

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

Some universities have announced that spelling and grammar (i.e. morphology and syntax) are not all that important, but quality of thought is. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Ancient Greeks were fascinated by language and invented much of the terminology in which we still talk about it. Protagoras (5th century bc) first classified nouns as masculine, feminine and ‘things’ (neuter). Aristotle (4th c. bc) defined articles, nouns, conjunctions and verbs, and talked of vowels, consonants, syllables and inflections as well as groups of words producing a collective meaning (‘utterance’), noting that ‘there can be utterance without verbs’. Dionysius from Thrace (2nd c. bc) divided nouns into cases (nominative, vocative, etc.), and singular and plural.

They also argued intensely about words and word-formation. Apollonius ‘Duskolos’ (‘Grouch’, 2nd c. ad) pointed out that traditional orthography demonstrated that there were historical reasons behind word-formation and spelling. These generated rules, from which one could identify spelling errors. Without rules, one could not do that. This, he argued, also applied to the meaning of words, i.e. there was such a thing as right and wrong usage. Exceptions, as ever, simply proved that rules existed.

The consequence of this focus is that the education system was dominated by mastering words: syllables and endings (morphology), pronunciation, meaning, spelling and reciting. Get those right and you were on the way to becoming a master of the spoken word. Syntax, i.e. rules of sentence structure, was a post-classical invention. It was irrelevant to writing beautifully.

Where does that leave the universities? They look to develop clarity and precision of thought. Spelling is a convention (Latin conuenio, ‘I agree’); so, for the most part, are the meanings of words. They represent agreed standards. To get them wrong suggests a lack of precision. But grammar? To generalise very sweepingly: English is only marginally morphological, and its syntax is (of course) derived from linguistic usage, not imposed upon it. So if one’s thought is expressed clearly and precisely, it will almost by definition be syntactical, however occasionally infuriating to (e.g.) we sticklers. QED.

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