Grammar and Gramarye

“Grammar”: Middle English gramere, from Old French gramaire, alteration of Latin grammatica, from Greek grammatiké, from feminine of grammatikos, of letters, from gramma, grammat-, letter; see gerbh– in Indo-European roots.


“Gramarye”: Middle English gramarie, probably from Old French gramaire, grammar, book of magic ; see grammar.


Until she retired, I would periodically go back to my high school to visit my sophomore English teacher. On one occasion, a few years ago, we got onto the subject — I’m not sure how — of grammar. Actually, I’m not even sure that’s the angle we approached it from, but the key thing in this conversation was that I explained to her my reasons for loving grammar.

If you understand a system, you can control it. Certainly, there are fallacies in this statement, but I think the heart of it is true — as is the flip side, which is that you have precious little hope of controlling a system you don’t understand. Grammar, in my mind, is such a system. It is not a Holy Truth, whose rules and strictures should never be broken; I break rules of grammar all the time in my writing. But the point is, because I know what those rules are, I am in control of them. I can choose, consciously and with purpose, when to break them, knowing my reasons why, and what effect will be produced by so doing.

It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say this has a mystical overtone in my mind. Awareness of that overtone sent me to the dictionary, where, just for curiosity’s sake, I looked up the etymology of grammar and gramarye. They do appear to be related: grammar and magic. For someone as fascinated as I am by the potential connections between magic and words and language and names and stories, this is incredibly significant.

Words are a way of working magic, and grammar is one of the sets of rules that governs their function and use. If you understand those rules, you have power. How can a writer not be fascinated by grammar? It would be like an architect saying he doesn’t much care about geometry. You can put a building together without thinking much about proportions and angles and the relationship of parts to the whole, and it’s even possible that the building will stand up just fine. But how much more wonderful of a building could you construct if you did think about such things! If you paid attention to how the shapes fit together, drawing the eye toward points of focus, creating impressions of intimacy or vast open space, welcome or dismissal! The comprehensibility and aesthetics of a building are both built on several things, of which geometry is a hugely important one. The same is true of phrases, sentences, stories. Careless disregard for grammar creates awkwardness, confusion, lack of focus. Awareness of grammar, and a penchant for experimenting with its effects, can act like an amplifier for the power of your words, and for the enchantment they carry.

Is it geeky? Of course. But geekiness, in truth, is a fascination with the ins and outs of a subject, with all of its special quirks. What is wrong with that? If you want to do something well, then a geek is the best thing you can be.

My teacher, by the way, wanted to know if she could tape-record me saying this, and play it for her students. 🙂