This year, for the first time in almost two decades as an English professor, I taught grammar. The experience energized me in ways I did not anticipate. The questions alone shifted my perception of language as I began to see the philosophy behind the rules.

For instance, why do we say, “the rich chocolate layer cake” instead of “the layer chocolate rich cake”? And why don’t we need commas to separate that series of adjectives?

The answer lies in the logic of the description: the adjectives are cumulative, building upon one another until the final word in the phrase (“cake”) appears. And because the adjectives are different in nature, they are not separated by commas.

When we place a word in a specific slot in a sentence, we order reality.  We discern how English speakers construct their worlds.  We don’t say “the cat black” because English speakers over a thousand years ago agreed that words that named things (nouns) would appear after words that described them (adjectives). Hence, “the black cat.”

liberal arts
The seven liberal arts, Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

It is no surprise that grammatica was one of the original three liberal arts subjects of the medieval trivium. Consider how essential grammar is to everything we do with one another as human beings. If we cannot communicate, we cannot build things together.  Understanding the infinite shades of meaning in a language builds social cohesion.

The entire spectrum of arts and sciences—or, as the medievals classed them, the language arts and the numerical arts—completes human intelligence, producing what Thomas Aquinas called the “lively mind.” Such a mind has a panoramic view of existence and recognizes its own responsibility to find a meaningful place within it.

Perhaps grammar still lies at the core of the liberal arts.  Lately, the term has been bandied about to describe the implicit rules of diverse systems (the grammar of science, the grammar of society, the grammar of happiness, and even—the grammar of God). Studying the order and function of words in a sentence is one way to begin knowing the self in relation to others, to understanding the structure of how things work.