Grammar ABC

We can use children’s language learning as the model for understanding how we learn to write academically: children a. improvise [= invention without regard for error], then b. begin to learn rules and exceptions through practice [= conventions as “fumblerules” learnt through procedural trial and error], then become over-vigorous in their application of the rules under the impetus of error correction [= the rule-bound prevention of error to the detriment of invention]. What we’re left with is academic writing as a superstitious system of inferences and inhibitions—of what structuralists like Freud and Malinowksi called magical thinking.

Magical Thinking

Understanding such mistakes de(con)structively, i.e. a privative erratology [the study of “mistakes” (errors are the subject of the study)] can allow us to make them constructively, i.e. a creative erratology [a discourse of “mistakes” (errors are the substance of the discourse)].

Erratology is magic that doesn’t expose the smoke and mirrors of writing, but allows us to see the illusions by which it operates (privative erratology)—and to learn to prestidigitate ourselves (creative erratology).

So, to children’s language learning, in particular, the development of semantic grammar . . .

Grammatical development

From 1-2 years, children start using telegraphic speech, which are two word combinations, for example “wet nappy.” Brown (1973) observed that 75% of children’s two-word utterances could be summarised in the existence of 11 semantic relations:

  1. Attributive: “big house”
  2. Agent-Action: “Daddy hit”
  3. Action-Object: “hit ball”
  4. Agent-Object: “Daddy ball”
  5. Nominative: “that ball”
  6. Demonstrative: “there ball”
  7. Recurrence: “more ball”
  8. Non-existence: “all-gone ball”
  9. Possessive: “Daddy chair”
  10. Entity + Locative: “book table”
  11. Action + Locative: “go shops”

At around 3 years, children engage in simple sentences, which are 3 word sentences. Simple sentences follow adult rules and get refined gradually. Grammatical morphemes get added as these simple sentences start to emerge. By 3-5 years, children continue to add grammatical morphemes and gradually produce complex grammatical structures. By 6-10 years, children refine the complex grammatical structures such as passive voice. (From wikipedia.)

This process of development mimics the cumulative process by which we learn and practise sentence combination. A writing pedagogy might return students to these telegraphic formulas to short-circuit the fumblerules and rule-boundedness of academic writing (a privative method); or, it might cultivate error as a route to creativity (a creative method).


  • holophrasis: using a single word to express a complex idea (for example, the word “up!” for “pick me up!”)—thus, symbol/allegory
  • underextension: taking a general word and applying it specifically (for example, calling a favourite blanket “Blankie”)—thus, metaphor
  • overextension: taking a specific word and applying it too generally (for example, “car” for “van”)—thus, generalisation
  • coinage: children coin words to fill in for words not yet learned (for example, someone is a cooker rather than a chef because a child will not know what a chef is)—thus, neologism

Roger Brown, A First Language: The Early Stages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Creative erratology is the cultivation of lapsūs calami (slips of the calamus, “pen”)—of linguistic calamities. Visual artists do something like this when they, for example, write with their non-dominant hand (see Lucia Capacchione, The Power of Your Other Hand: A Course in Channeling the Inner Wisdom of the Right Brain [Career, 2001] 91, or the earlier Betty Edwards, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, rev. and exp. ed. [1979; Tarcher, 1999]).

Given that “error” comes from the Latin errare, “to wander or stray,” to cultivate error is to allow our Denkweg or path of thinking to lead us astray.


One thought on “Grammar ABC

  1. Pingback: Erratology/hamartiology « Te Ipu Pakore

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