A Much-Needed Grammar Map

by Tammy Peters

My husband and I recently moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. After seventeen years of living in Cincinnati, we could drive around our old city like pros, taking the best shortcuts to Graeter’s Ice Cream or navigating through construction detours to the Red’s game with hardly even a care. We knew our world and knew it well.

When we arrived up north in Minneapolis, everything seemed foreign to me. We could have moved to Croatia. No matter how anticipated the relocation had been, I found my world flipped upside down, and I needed to gain my bearings if I was going to thrive here.

I noticed the first night we arrived that getting out of our neighborhood was going to be my thorn. Apparently at one time the street had been a through street, but several years ago it was converted into a court. This made something that should have been obvious become very confusing. The twists and turns of my new neighborhood streets created a navigational nightmare.

What I didn’t realize then was the simplicity of the city, which is organized with streets going east and west and avenues going north and south. What I didn’t discover, until later, was a giant map of the city displayed on an informational sign near a bike trail around Lake Nokomis; this convenient map was located just two blocks away from our house. What I didn’t expect was the ease of using this map to gain an understanding of my new home.

Now, you’re probably wondering what my problem was. You’re thinking, “Just use GPS to get around!” I did. But the reality was I didn’t comprehend how I got to my location. I just appeared there after following the blue line on my phone. I never really understood the context of where I was.

GPS is a lot like the grammar checker on our computers. Even as I was writing this post, the warning squiggles lit up my screen to alert me to potential grammar violations. How often do we rely on this built-in function? We come. We click. We conquer, with little conviction of what was really wrong. Grammar curriculum often addresses grammar in this same way: Just edit out the mistakes and don’t look back.

Photo by Nicole Geri / Unsplash

By moving to Minneapolis, I gained a teachable spirit anew. I was desperate to have that ease that I had back in Ohio, where I could concentrate on the beauty around me and not stress about the traffic patterns. When I found the giant Minneapolis map and could see the overall picture of the city, I began to ask questions: What is that road? How does it connect to this one? Where does this road go? I began to think for myself while seeing how things fit together. I saw order and logic while also seeing the beauty of my new city.

Learning English grammar and understanding the logic of word placement (syntax) and categorical elements (the eight parts of speech) can be the greatest benefits to communication. When you grow up speaking English, you are not aware of the governing rules. You just know how to “get there.” Yet, your knowledge is short-lived when placed in different circumstances, such as writing a paper or presenting a talk. This is where we often grab the grammar GPS and hope for the best.

Where is the giant grammar map that we can use? Wouldn’t it be great if we could identify the principal elements of a sentence and the modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) on our own? For instance, consider this sentence:

Last year, I moved from Cincinnati to Minneapolis before the blowing winds arrived and cumulating layers of freezing snow covered the ground.

This is a complex sentence with several nouns and even a few verbs. How do you navigate through it? Are the principal elements of the sentence “I moved” or are they “blowing winds arrived and freezing snow covered”? Which grammar road do you take? And more importantly, why?

Even though I had a minor in English from the University of Wisconsin, I never learned analytical grammar until I joined the staff at Mars Hill Academy in Cincinnati. There I discovered the grammarian Thomas Harvey (1821–1892) who, like many grammarians in his day, looked at a sentence as a group of words that expresses a complete thought. He viewed a sentence in a logical way—analyzed it—and made maps—diagrams—of the thought within it.

Well-Ordered Language Series

Harvey gave me a window into a way of thinking that had been lost, or more accurately never taught to me. Over the years in Cincinnati, I used Harvey’s grammar studies to craft the Well-Ordered Language series, a grammar curriculum designed to equip students with the tools to understand the mechanics of their language.

My quest was to give them tools to understand thought and clearly convey ideas. My goal was more than just to teach the structure of English grammar but to have students delight in it. Well-Ordered Language is so much more than a grammatical GPS system; it’s a road map that helps teach the meaning behind thought. Both the teacher and the student participate in analyzing and diagramming sentences, asking the “What?” and ”Why” about the placement and function of words in sentences. They also encounter the beauty of grammar in the context of excerpts of great literature and poetry, which allows them to see how writers before them have employed this knowledge. My ambition, along with that of my coauthor, Dr. Daniel Coupland, is for students to think for themselves in order to write and communicate well.

A few weeks after we moved to Minneapolis, my husband and I decided to figure out our way back from St. Paul using what local knowledge we had gained. I can’t say we didn’t get lost, but I can say we asked the right questions, thought about the directions of the roads, and arrived home very satisfied with knowing a bit more about our new city.

Tammy Peters

Author and educator Tammy Peters earned her BA in elementary education and a minor in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1982, and her MA in reading from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee in 1987. During her teaching career, she taught at elementary, undergraduate, and graduate levels and also worked as a district reading specialist. She recently retired from her position as a third-grade teacher at Mars Hill Academy, a classical Christian school in Cincinnati, where she had taught, written grammar curriculum, and mentored the elementary staff since 2000. She is the author, with Dr. Daniel Coupland, of Well-Ordered Language, a grammar series for students in grades 3–6.

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