A Classic Grammar Makes a Comeback

If you want to express your ideas, particularly ideas based on Objectivism, learn clarity—and that means concepts, grammar, punctuation. I would rather have a simple, primer clarity than the best metaphors in the world.

—Ayn Rand1

Grammar is the structure of language, the rules for combining words and phrases to express thoughts clearly. The exact meaning of a sentence depends on both the meaning of the concepts and the manner of combining them; no thought can be expressed exactly without proper grammar.

This is the message of Writing and Thinkinga classic grammar book, long recommended by Leonard Peikoff, which has been brought back into print by The Paper Tiger.2 According to Dr. Peikoff, "This is a truly excellent grammar, the best I have ever found. …Its special quality is not only to make clear the rules of grammar, but also the logic, the essential reasoning, behind those rules."3

Writing and Thinking is not just a grammar rulebook. It discusses "the universally valid principles of expression [which] tell how it is in the nature of the human mind to express itself in language."4 Grammar is presented, not as an end in itself, but as a means to clarity. This approach to grammar is made explicit in Foerster and Steadman’s discussion of economy in writing:

Writing should be regarded, then, not as soliloquy, but as the transmission of thought from one mind to another. It is not an end in itself, but a means—a machine for the transmission of thought, as the radio is.

It follows that good writing, like good machinery, must operate smoothly, with a minimum of friction. Economy demands that the thought be transferred in its entirety and without distortion. Any mode of writing that calls attention to itself violates the principle of economy. If the attention of the reader is attracted to offensive misspellings, to blunders in grammar, to misleading punctuation, to the use of slang, to excessive cleverness in phrasing, to the use of showy language, to monotony of sentence construction, the amount of attention given to the thought is diminished in proportion.5

This is a college-level text with many exercises, written for a reader who knows the basics of grammar and seeks advanced principles for applying that knowledge effectively. The main principles are explained in the first part of the book ("A Handbook of Composition"). The second part ("A Handbook of Revision") is a comprehensive rulebook, which includes both basic and advanced rules of grammar. However, the basics are presented only briefly for review or reference.6

The two-part structure supports an important secondary theme of the book—the need to develop one’s powers of thought and expression, by effort and by mastering specific skills. Usually, in part one, a given principle is explained, accompanied by an appeal to exert the effort to implement it, as in this exhortation to use variety in one’s choice of words:

[Variety] must be cultivated in diction—in the choice of the words of which the sentences are composed.

Now, dull and monotonous sentences are the result of dull and monotonous thinking; and dull and monotonous thinking, in turn, is the result of inattention, or, to speak plainly, of laziness.... The lazy mind needs few words to express itself. Everything we like we call nice, without waiting to decide whether we really mean pleasant, attractive, pretty, neat, well-mannered, considerate, amiable, fragrant, delicious, etc.... There is a time, no doubt, when laziness is our privilege. But that time is not when we are writing. Then the mind must be roused to alertness, its activity be suddenly heightened, in order that clear images and ideas may spring up in all their natural variety, and with them the words that represent them.

For varied thinking and writing are assuredly impossible unless we possess a liberal stock of words, the raw materials of expression. If words are dependent on thoughts, thoughts are also dependent on words. We cannot think, save in a rudimentary, animal fashion, without an abundance of words.7

The material in part two then gives detailed advice on how to acquire the necessary skills. For example, part two contains an entire chapter on diction, including a glossary of usage, a list of idioms, a list of trite expressions, specific advice for improving one’s vocabulary, and tips for using the dictionary.

This is a comprehensive book, its 450-plus pages packed with material. Those who use the book as a reference can locate specific topics in the helpful index or through extensive cross-references in the text. In addition, the present volume has a new, detailed table of contents, which allows readers to browse the material quickly.

The distinctive value of this book, however, is not its detail but its quality. The authors have a first-hand understanding of the need for grammar. They present the principles clearly, concretize them well, give reasons for them, and perhaps most valuably, share their introspective observations of the cognitive effect of violating grammatical rules. For example, they eloquently describe the result in the reader’s mind of faulty repetition:

Repetition is good when it serves a purpose, when it clarifies or emphasizes. It is bad when it occurs accidentally and without purpose, since then the reader, observing the repetition, consciously or unconsciously supposes that it serves a purpose, and not finding any purpose, any value in the repetition, feels that he has been misled and that the writer has failed to express himself adequately.8

The quality and quantity of the explanations in this book are unique. The emphasis on the role of thought, and therefore on the psychological and logical purpose of the rules, gives this book an objectivity that would be outstanding in any context, but is exceptional today.

Today, the field of grammar has been corrupted by subjectivism. Grammar is viewed, not as a logical necessity, but as a mere social convention. Thinking is regarded as an unimportant, "subjective phenomenon." This outlook became dominant soon after the 1941 edition, used for the current reprint, was published—and it can seen in the dramatic contrast between this book and a fifth edition from 1952, which was revised by a third party.

Perhaps only 10 to 20 percent of the fifth edition has been revised, but virtually all the changes reflect the influence of social subjectivism. Many points have been hedged. For example, a sentence is defined as "a relatively complete segment of speech," and various types of agreement are only "usually" needed in "formal" English.9 But the most shocking changes are outright appeals to pragmatism. Consider this argument for correct spelling:

Misspelling is a serious social and professional handicap. Like egg on a man’s tie, it prejudices people against the offender regardless of the cogency of his thought. There are many reasons for the general regard for correct spelling. Editors and printers demand a dependable standard; for many people it is an easy accomplishment, just as dancing or juggling is easy for some; it is one of the subjects long taught in every elementary school and encouraged by spelling bees; and misspellings are subject to simple judgment by reference to dictionaries and spellers.10

In other words, people value correct spelling only due to prejudice, indoctrination, and one-upmanship. (The 1941 edition, by contrast, makes no bones about the need to spell correctly, declaring: "Misspelling is one of the obvious marks of illiteracy."11)

The fifth edition’s pragmatism is made explicit in this passage: "We can agree that for all practical purposes thinking is no better or more useful than the thinker’s ability to use words to communicate."12

Ayn Rand did not agree. She wrote:

Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause nor the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication; the necessary precondition of communication is that one have something to communicate.13

The great virtue of the 1941 edition is that Foerster and Steadman understand the relationship between thought and communication. Thus, they are able to present grammar, not as a collection of arbitrary dictates or loose customs, but as a series of rational, logically validated principles. They are able to explain the context that gives rise to them and the context for applying them. This makes Writing and Thinking a pleasure to read and an invaluable addition to the library of the writer—and the thinker.

Early in the book, Foerster and Steadman comment: "When we read a sentence that is vague and feeble, we may safely assume that the writer’s thought was vague and feeble."14 Their goal is to help you make your writing clear and strong.



1From edited transcripts of Ayn Rand’s private non-fiction writing course, to be published in 2001 as The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, edited by Robert Mayhew. 2Norman Foerster and J.M. Steadman, Jr., Writing and Thinking: AHandbook of Composition and Revision, Expanded Edition (The Paper Tiger, Cresskill, nj), 2000. This edition is an exact replica of the 1941 edition, with two supplements—a detailed table of contents, and an appendix on outlines from an earlier edition of the book. 3Leonard Peikoff originally recommended the book in his "Principles of Grammar" taped lecture course (Second Renaissance Books, Gaylordsville, ct), 1982. This quote appears on the back cover of the Paper Tiger edition of Foerster and Steadman. 4Foerster and Steadman, p. 8. 5Ibid., p. 38. 6To learn the basics—the parts of speech and elements of a sentence—I recommend doing the exercises in Rex Barks: Diagramming Sentences Made Easy, by Phyllis Davenport (Second Renaissance Books, Gaylordsville, ct), 1999. 7Foerster and Steadman, pp. 44–45. 8Ibid., p. 34. 9Writing and Thinking: A Handbook of Composition and Revision, Fifth Edition, by Norman Foerster and J.M. Steadman, Jr., revised by James B. McMillan (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, ma), 1952. The first quotation is from page 5, the second from page 115. The fifth edition is not recommended. 10Ibid., page 272. 11Foerster and Steadman, Paper Tiger Edition, p. 259. 12Foerster, Steadman, and McMillan, Fifth Edition, p. 4, emphasis in the original. 13Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition (Meridian), 1990, p. 69. 14Foerster and Steadman, Paper Tiger Edition, p. 6.

                                                             —Jean Moroney

Copyright 2000 Jean Moroney. Posted with permission. All rights reserved. This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of  The Intellectual Activist magazine.



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