On this day in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg made a grammar error that went down in history. Speaking to the Council of Constance in Latin, the Emperor called for the gathered assembly to eradicate the Papal Schism, a division in the Catholic Church in which three separate men claimed to be the true pope. Unfortunately for the emperor, he mixed up the gender of the Latin word schisma using it as if it were feminine instead of the correct neuter form. When the error was respectfully pointed out to him by a monk, Sigismund responded angrily say, “I am the Emperor of Rome! Even if the word is neuter, it will be feminine from now on.”
In response to Sigismund’s decree, a monk stood and proclaimed, “Caesar non supra grammaticos” – or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians.”
Ever since Sigismund’s historic fail, the expression “Caesar non supra grammaticos” has been used to remind us that the rules of English grammar and spelling are not given to us as authoritative decrees from on high; instead, they are based on the conventions of writing that are followed by actual writers. They are also inherently democratic in that they apply to everyone, and no one individual has the power to arbitrarily change them.
Too often we see grammar as a study of the things we can’t do with language. Instead, we should view grammar for what we can do with it — it allows us to craft clear, quality sentences that allow us to share our best thinking with others. If English is our first language, we have an unconscious understanding of how to put words together so that they make sense. Written English, however, is different from spoken English. Studying grammar gives us the specific language we need to diagnose errors and to reason-through how to correct them so that our sentences are clear. Just as an auto mechanic knows the names of the different parts under the hood of a car, we should know the different parts of a sentence. The mechanic’s job is to diagnose the problem and fix it so that the car will do its job, which is getting its owner efficiently from point A to point B. Grammar is simply the mechanics of the sentence, and knowing grammar will help you make sure that all the parts work efficiently so that your sentences do their job, which is to clearly and efficiently communicate your ideas.
As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, “. . . grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery . . . . It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful” (79).
In other words, don’t be preoccupied with the rules of grammar; instead, focus on how grammar rules!
Today’s Challenge: Grammar, not the Emperor, Rules
What’s your grammar pet peeve? What one grammar rule do you find the most useful in crafting clear writing? Identify a single grammar rule, and write an explanation of the rule with examples that show both the rule and violations of the rule. Include the clearest possible explanation of the rule along with a rationale of why it is an important rule to know and how knowing the rule will help the writer. The list of frequent errors below might help you zero in on a specific rule to write about:
Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Dangling participles, Ambiguous pronouns, Lack of subject/verb agreement, Lack of parallelism
(Common Core Language 1 and 2 – Conventions of Standard English)
Quotation of the Day: A grammar book does not attempt to teach people how they ought to speak, but on the contrary, unless it is a very bad or a very old work, it merely states how, as a matter of fact, certain people do speak at the time at which it is written. –H.C. Wyld
1-Pinker, Stephen. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century