Intentional Grammatical Mistakes: Miriam Joseph and Martianus Capella on Bad Grammar (Explorations in the Art of Grammar Series #4)

By Jenna Carey, Guest Author

We are immersed with grammatical concepts from the moment we are born to the moment we take our last breath. Our parents bombard us as babies with, “can you say da-da; can you say ma-ma,” then we grow up, leaving “da-da” and “ma-ma” behind, shouting “I love you, I’ll see you at Christmas” on the way out the door. Not only is communication a constant part of life, it is one of the only ways we as humans are different from other species. Without grammar, humanity as we know it does not exist. In his gospel, John makes clear the purpose of grammar in the cosmos: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 ESV). This sentence seems confusing to us (I think, in part, because we are not omniscient), but the basic concept is easy to grasp; rhetoric has always existed. Because we are image-bearers of Christ, grammar runs through our veins and establishes our existence. There is no question of whether communication dictates our lives; however, the question remains as to whether or not correct grammar should be seen as a higher form of intelligence than incorrect grammar. This may seem as an obvious question to the average reader, but the average reader, most of the time, is wrong. Understanding and applying grammatical concepts determines the path of life on which an individual embarks. Landing the job from the eloquent speech at the job interview, convincing the homeowner to sell you the house through rhetorical savvy-ness, and communicating with your spouse in order to prevent divorce are all real-life situations dependent upon correct, fluent, and intentional rhetoric. However, there is one question that begs to be asked: does “bad grammar” have a place in the everyday world? Of course, the average grammarian slips up in his or her rhetoric, but I am not contending for the benefit of unintentional grammar mistakes; I am asserting the necessity of deliberate grammatical misusage. Intentionally using “bad grammar” demonstrates an exemplary understanding of grammar itself, and therefore should be considered as a higher intellectual standard.

The sophistication demanded of exemplary rhetoric requires a level of understanding above simple grammatical rules. In grade school, children learn the definition of a noun, adjective, and verb, then understand how to use them in simple sentences, a trademark of every American school whether public, private, or homeschool. Miriam Joseph, in her book The Trivium, states that “The function of language is threefold: to communicate thought, volition, and emotion,”[1] ultimately suggesting that no human being can escape the need to understand grammar. However, because grammar is a necessity for all to learn, there must be a way to differentiate between the average grammarian (every human being), the skilled grammarian, and the exemplary grammarian. Communicating “thought volition and emotion” may not be the average grammar lesson’s exact words, but essentially, all children apply this concept when learning language for the first time, creating the average grammarian. The skilled grammarian is formed through the application of communication in various forms in addition to their basic verbal communication. Joseph writes that these skilled students “should know why certain reasonings and expressions are correct or effective, and others just the opposite, and should be able to apply the rules in speaking, writing, listening, and reading.”[2] A skilled grammarian applies their knowledge to a realm of different ideas, not simply the ones taught in the classroom. But above the skilled grammarian is the exemplary grammarian who ventures beyond application; the exemplary grammarian not only applies the rules taught to him; he makes up rules of his own that build upon his rhetorical foundation.

The most obvious form of an exemplary grammarian can be seen through the intentional use of grammatical mistakes. Intentional grammatical errors aided to enhance literary understanding are examples of how an exemplary grammarian outshines his skilled grammarian peer. Joseph writes: “The adaptation of language to circumstance, which is a function of rhetoric, requires the choice of a certain style and diction in speaking to adults, of a different style in presenting scientific ideas to the general public, and of another in presenting them to a group of scientists. Since rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, it may even enjoin the use of bad grammar or bad logic, as in the portrayal of an illiterate or stupid character in a story.”[3] Mark Twain wrote the great American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, during which the characters speak in a dialect containing multiple pronunciation errors, slang phrases, and fallacies galore. A person unfamiliar with Twain’s work may open his book and scoff at the audacity of Twain to include so many errors; however, the reader experiencing the novel will understand the heritage and upbringing of Huck and Jim through Twain’s deliberate use of “bad” grammar. This example illustrates how exemplary rhetoricians will bend and shape the rules to fit their circumstance, not that Twain simply does not know how to spell. Aesthetics and literary imagery sometimes demand grammatical nonsense, and in order to understand how to communicate such nonsense, a writer not only has to know basic grammar and demonstrate a level of application suitable for the work, he must adapt the basics and applications to fit his circumstance.

Classic allegories break grammatical rules yet are held in high esteem. The basic rule schoolchildren learn is to be straightforward, clear, and concise, so that the reader can understand the concept being conveyed. Allegory does not follow the grammatical rules taught at a basic level; in fact, allegory completely reverses basic rules, turning a concept into a precept (a basic definition into an example) without telling the reader of the definition. In his book The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Martianus Capella writes an allegory representing the interconnectedness of the trivium and quadrivium (the two parts of the seven liberal arts of learning). In this allegory, Philology ascends into space: “Then the bearers picked up the goddess’ palanquin and with great effort carried her aloft. Borne up by their buoyancy they rose 126,000 stades, and completed the first of the celestial tonal intervals…”[4] At first read, this seems abstract, strange, and unnecessary for a marriage story; however, this ascension theme demonstrates a love of learning intertwining with a love of God, representing worship in the form of rhetoric. If Capella were merely a second-tier skilled grammarian, he would have simply stated an obvious claim stating the necessity of grammar connecting with a writer’s soul, but he is an exemplary third-tier grammarian. He broke the rule of clear, concise grammar and formed beautiful, unimaginable, intelligent imagery that evokes feeling and power for the reader, clearly conveying the truth of mind and spirit becoming one. Capella is an exemplary grammarian, breaking rules in order to convey truths only identifiable through relatable circumstances and stories. Allegory connects deep within the reader, identifying with their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. In order to be so affective, however, allegory goes against basic grammatical rules of conciseness, communicating the necessity of grammatical rule manipulation.

Grammar is more than a set of rules, definitions, and vocabularies. Application and imagination are necessary in forming a great rhetorician. Joseph explains that “the liberal arts…teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.”[5] In order to see the liberal arts take effect in the lives of children, grammar must be taught, enforced, then manipulated. The average school instructs on the first two steps, but generally discourages the third. Teachers raise great grammarians, full of definitions and applications, but rarely train exemplary grammarians due to overlooking the third step of imagination. Rules are meant to be broken, yet many instructors never communicate that fact to their students. Of course, the teacher must drill facts and application into the student first, but once the skills are mastered, often the student moves on without creating something far better than basic sentence structures. Exemplary grammarians are made from the teachers who allow the rules to be broken once mastered. In order to train up Twains and Capellas capable of changing the world one sentence at a time, teachers must not stop after mere definitions and applications; they must praise the grammarian who intentionally misuses a phrase in order to emphasize an idea, misspells a word to bring attention to a character’s up-bringing, or follows a fallacy in order to carry out an idea. To truly communicate thought, volition, and emotion in their highest regards, students must allow imagination to override set-in-stone rules, and teachers must allow them to do it.


Capella, Martianus, William Harris. Stahl, Richard Johnson, and E. L. Burge. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Joseph, Miriam, and Marguerite McGlinn. The Trivium: the Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric: Understanding the Nature and Function of Language. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002.

[1] Miriam Joseph and Marguerite McGlinn, The Trivium: the Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric: Understanding the Nature and Function of Language (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002), 12

[2] Joseph, 46

[3] Joseph, 10, emphasis added.

[4] Martianus Capella et al., The Marriage of Philology and Mercury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 55

[5] Joseph, 5

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