Meet The Grammar Guardian Behind Britain’s Surprise Bestseller

Meet The Grammar Guardian Behind Britain’s Surprise Bestseller

If you don’t know grammar, you can’t think well, says this Oxford-educated British author and tutor. And he’s here to help.
Emma Elliott Freire
By

Good grammar is essential to a happy life. That’s the simple but revolutionary premise behind “Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English,” a surprise bestseller in Great Britain that has just been published in America.

“In order to think, you need words. Words are vocabulary. In order to think correctly, you need to use the words correctly. Thus, grammar is completely essential to everything else. If you don’t think right, there’s not one human activity—even playing poker or bridge—that you will do right,” says the book’s author, Neville M. Gwynne.

A graduate of Eton College and Oxford University, Gwynne, 72, takes an old-fashioned approach to teaching and makes no apologies for it. “I am teaching grammar the way it was taught to me and the way it was taught to everybody until my day. It’s the way Aristotle was taught grammar and the way Cicero was taught grammar,” he says.

“Gwynne’s Grammar” provides all the fundamentals, but also takes time to explain why grammar is so important and the best ways to study it. Gwynne argues extensive memorization is crucial.

Thank Progressives for Bad Grammar

“Nowadays nobody knows what a noun is, and nobody knows when to use a comma and not to use a comma. When I was young, anybody, no matter what social rank, could write a perfectly spelled, perfectly paragraphed, perfectly punctuated letter of two or three pages,” he says.

‘When I was young, anybody, no matter what social rank, could write a perfectly spelled, perfectly paragraphed, perfectly punctuated letter of two or three pages.’

He blames the dramatic decline on Progressive, child-centered theories of education John Dewey promoted in America. Dewey’s ideas were adopted in England in the 1960s, and quickly swept through every school in the land. That includes top private schools such as Eton, Gwynne’s alma mater—and the alma mater of princes William and Harry and 19 British prime Ministers.

Gwynne is just old enough to have dodged the modern teaching revolution. “I am incredibly grateful to have been sent to Eton—the greatest school in the world, I suppose—and I had a wonderful education there. Today, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, and I beg the parents who I’m involved with not to do it,” he says.

Surprisingly, British people have been snapping up copies of a book that heaps scorn on the education most of them received. “Gwynne’s Grammar” has topped several bestseller lists. Prince Charles wrote to Gwynne to congratulate him.

From Teaching Latin to Rhyming Poetry

No one is more surprised than Gwynne himself. His book’s route to bestsellerdom was hardly straightforward. It all started when he was teaching Latin to the children of Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler Academy, a book shop and training center in London with a small press. “[Hodgkinson] was so fascinated by the English grammar I was teaching his children in order to teach them Latin grammar. He suddenly said, ‘Neville, put this into a book! We’ll call it ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ and I’ll publish it.’” The first edition of “Gwynne’s Grammar” sold a modest few hundred copies. Then the head of Ebury Publishing, part of the Random House Group, noticed it in a catalogue and got in touch. Gwynne wrote an expanded version, and sales took off.

‘People who actually want to make money out of their poetry, like the writers of songs in musical comedies or pop songs, they jolly well make sure their stuff rhymes and scans.’

In April this year, Ebury published “Gwynne’s Latin.” At one point, the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s bestseller list featured “Gwynne’s Latin” at number one and “Gwynne’s Grammar” at number two. He is currently writing his third book, “Gwynne’s Kings and Queens of England.”

The American edition of “Gwynne’s Grammar,” published in September, has been expanded in several areas. Gwynne is particularly happy with a new chapter on how to write poetry. That may seem like an odd addition, but Gwynne argues that such chapters were standard features of most grammar books until about 100 years ago. “If people in America become aware of this chapter, they will find it jolly interesting,” he says. “I took a lot of trouble over that chapter. I actually say that, contrary to modern wisdom, poetry that doesn’t rhyme and scan in a regular meter is not poetry.”

“The modern poetry started by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound is so much pernicious, damaging rubbish,” he says. “People who actually want to make money out of their poetry, like the writers of songs in musical comedies or pop songs, they jolly well make sure their stuff rhymes and scans. They don’t mess around. They know that that’s what works and speaks to the heart.”

An Unlikely Teacher

Gwynne’s route to a career in teaching and writing was as unexpected as the success of his books. After graduating from Oxford, he became a chartered accountant. He rose quickly at a major global company called Slater Walker before starting his own business, which was also successful. In the 1980s, he decided to retire “for a number of reasons, but one of them was that business was becoming more difficult because there was so much red tape ever increasing. I could never start up a business now the way I started one up then.”

Over time, his main subject became Latin, and he has taught it to children as young as ages two or three.

A couple years into retirement, he began some freelance teaching in various subjects to earn, what he calls, “a little bit of pocket money.” Over time, his main subject became Latin, and he has taught it to children as young as ages two or three. “They’re lovely because at that age you’re teaching them ‘eenie-meenie-miny-moe.’ So why not teach them amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant? My aim with children is that by the time they reach the age of reason, which is sort of seven or eight, they know all their Latin grammar by heart and have loved learning it. And then they’re ready to apply it in translating,” he says.

He believes studying Latin will improve students’ results in all their other subjects. “What Latin teaches you is how to concentrate, to remember what you need to remember, and to carefully analyze every detail. It teaches you to keep going as long as it takes to solve the problem,” he says. “All these things are character things.”

Little Alternative to Homeschooling

To complete his third book on time, Gwynne has passed on most his teaching to his daughter, Chloe Gwynne, who follows his methods exactly. They are hiring another teacher to meet growing demand. Most of their work is done via Skype. Their website, Gwynne Teaching, contains some videos of their teaching style. Pupils range from retired adults to children who need an extra hour of tutoring after school to homeschoolers.

‘I am the normal personal historically. There’s nothing new about me.’

Gwynne reluctantly welcomes the growth of homeschooling. “It’s not because I like the idea. It’s because there is no alternative,” he says. In his opinion, one of the primary benefits of homeschooling is that it shields children from harmful influences. “What goes on in schools now is unbelievable with what they have access to on the Internet,” he says. “What you want to do for a child is to preserve its innocence for as long as possible. So that by the age of 17 or 18, the child has formed enough good habits that it’s proof against temptation. Modern childhood theory is that you should expose a child to temptation as much as possible so it can learn to cope with it. It doesn’t work like that. I was a child once. If I was exposed to temptation, I would have jumped into it.”

Through his books, teaching, and occasional public lectures, Gwynne is continuing his campaign for old-fashioned methods of education and child-rearing. He has no doubts about the justice of his cause. “All my standpoints sound radical, but I am in the majority,” he says. “I am the normal personal historically. There’s nothing new about me.”

Neville M. Gwynne can be contacted through his website, Gwynne Teaching. “Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English” is available at Amazon.com.

Emily Friere is a freelance writer based in Great Britain. She writes about both English and American culture and politics.

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