Grammar Made Fashionable: Phyllis Davenport’s “Rex Barks”

I began my career as a private teacher for a few families committed to providing their children with a real education. These parents had abandoned a fruitless search for a school in which their children would read the classics of literature, learn the story of history, grasp the fundamental principles of science, and develop the clarity and precision of thought that comes from an understanding of grammar.

I knew that a rigorous course in English grammar must include the art of diagramming sentences, but it was no easy task to find a good diagramming textbook in an age when grammar itself is unfashionable. Then, one day, a student’s mother brought me a copy of Phyllis Davenport’s Rex Barks. Here was a masterful presentation of grammar–a well-structured, incremental course in diagramming with clear explanations and memorable illustrations of each new principle–housed in a hand- folded, type-written book with a stapled binding and a tattered yellow cover. Such is the state of education today.

Schools everywhere have abandoned grammar either as unnecessary or as incompatible with the principles they hold most sacred. Educational theorists insist that the fundamental goal of education is to socialize the child, not to force upon him so rigid and academic a skill as grammar. Prominent linguists tell teachers that grammar is an innate faculty and cannot be taught. The so-called self-esteem movement calls for teachers to encourage and praise, not to correct. The “diversity” movement grants equality to all forms of speech and rejects the notion of a universal standard. Lending support to the myriad of reasons for expelling grammar from the curriculum is the often-repeated and self- contradictory view, “You don’t need grammar; you just have to make yourself understood.”

Phyllis Davenport understands that if you want to make yourself understood, you need grammar. Her textbook abounds with examples of the ambiguities that result from an ignorance of grammatical rules. Without knowledge of pronouns and elliptical clauses, you lose the distinction between, “You like Millie better than I” (which means, “You like Millie better than I like Millie”), and “You like Millie better than me” (which means, “You like Millie better than you like me”). This subtle distinction can have profound consequences if you and your wife are engaged in a deep discussion about your relationship with Millie. Or consider the confusion that results from the misplacement of a modifier. To cite a memorable example from Rex Barks: “Hanging over the side of the ship, his eye was caught by a piece of rope.” (The author wryly comments: “There goes that eye, like a fried egg or one of Dali’s watches!”) Clarity is impossible without grammar. As Mrs. Davenport points out, “Even the