English Grammar for Adults: What Might Be Useful in Reading Works of Poetry and Philosophy

part 1 | part 2

I will leave more basic things like “parts of speech” and verb tenses out of this discussion – the reason why this post is being written is to answer the question “Why care about grammar at all?” Here are a few reasons why which pertain to philosophy. I want feedback before I write any more, so part 2 could be a while in coming:

1. Demonstrative pronouns and interjections: Readers of Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” know there is something curious about a pronoun whose meaning depends on pointing, i.e. “That is what I want.” They also know that there is something really, really interesting about expressions like “Oh!” or “Wah!”

The latter – interjections – are perhaps the more crucial issue. From them we can perhaps glimpse how language developed. For example, when we were infants we cried to get what we wanted, then we started seeing how people acted towards each other to get what they wanted, and the corresponding words and their role in the language were learned by us.

But demonstrative pronouns show another side of how language works, a side which tempts many a student into believing in logical atomism, where some one thing in language stands as a “simple” for another thing. Words have to hook up with reality somehow, and perhaps what is key about a demonstrative pronoun is the purposeful indeterminacy of the word – it seems to give ground to the mere pointing as demonstrating where truth may lie.

2. Subordinate and coordinate conjunctions: Again, these issues seem rather blah, until one considers that with “if, then” conditions there seems to be the ability to posit direct relations between the hypothetical and the actual. I need not remind you that “if” is a subordinate conjunction, which in a sense marks off one clause as having a lesser value than another, so to speak. If two clauses are connected by coordinate conjunctions, such as “and,” “but,” “or,” etc., those clauses have a logical relation to each other contingent on their having an equality of sorts.

For example, “if tommy robs the bank, he can shop at the store” is very different from “tommy can rob the bank and shop at the store!” In this case, the subordinate clause introduced by “if” hints that something to help tommy shop at the store must be done. Now tommy might be able to shop at the store regardless of whether he robs the bank; if this is the case, the conditional is still true – the conditional is only false when tommy robs the bank and can’t shop at the store (interestingly: tommy doesn’t rob the bank, and doesn’t shop at the store. Conditional is still true even when both parts are proved false, for they are simply each negated). Notice that a coordinate set of clauses has a much different set of truth values: if one clause on either side of “and” is false, the whole thing is false.

The value of recognizing that something curious is happening with coordinate clauses and coordinate terms proves to be critical when reading poetry. If “and” links something, that’s pretty much a sign that each item linked to another must be taken at least as seriously as the other. But I will write much more another time, I need feedback on this first.

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