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Doing Four-Level Grammar Analysis Is Like Practicing the Piano

by Michael Clay Thompson

Why do students have to keep doing four-level analyses in every level of the MCT curriculum?

Here is a question that I have thought about, and you may have too. Even for me, I knew the answer, but I had to think about the reason. Why do students have to keep doing four-level analyses in every level of the MCT curriculum, in the grammar and practice and writing books, once they know how to do it? If a student has already done them, is it not better to skip the practice book or the four-levels in the writing book?

This is a good question. Why should a student have to keep doing it? Am I not opposed to students having to prove and prove and prove that they know something?

Yes, I am opposed to that, but this is different. Four-level analysis is different. It is not like having to show repeatedly that you know the capital of Tuvalu (Funafuti). That is a scrap of knowledge—a concrete detail that is verifiable in its entirety in a single question.

Four-level analysis is different because it is an expansive—almost cosmic—inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.

Four-level analysis is in part a mode of inquiry. When I think of using four-level analysis to approach and examine language, I think of a little space probe, with four little instruments on board, approaching an enormous, unknown planet in the dark depths of space. Beep? Beep? Like the planet, language is enormous, and like the probe, four-level analysis is little, and it can only find out so much. The gigantic language is too big to be described completely; it will always have paradoxes and unnamed phenomena and never-before-seen objects that keep pushing our ability to comprehend what we are learning.

Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are. You go out beyond the rules to the usually darkened reasons for the rules. You come upon sentences such as Shakespeare’s “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” from Macbeth, and after you solve the grammar, you sit for a long time, looking at its perfection, wondering why it is so beautiful. After a long thought, you do not know.

Four-level analysis is in part a logic of sentence construction. With each example you see more clearly how and why to make a verb agree with its subject, how to structure a good introductory participial phrase, how to punctuate a complex sentence, how to edit out junky modifiers, how to do the ten thousand things that writers want to do.

What I have learned myself after using four-level analysis for decades in my own teaching and writing and workshops and conferences and personal reading and thinking about language is that I am still growing in it. Not a week goes by that I do not discover something I had not thought of before (phrasal interjections this week). Not a week goes by that I do not more deeply realize the integral connection between grammarthink and poetry or literature or writing.

What I have seen in a consistent process during a period of decades is that by continuing to do four-level analysis, my thinking about language keeps getting clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Every month I am able to do more, see more, share more, enjoy more. Every month I find new grammar things, like shells on the beach.

I have been trying to find the way to explain this, and here is the analogy that finally occurred to me—the most precise analogy. You keep doing four-level analysis in your pursuit of language just as a pianist keeps practicing the piano in the pursuit of music. Both music and language are vast, bottomless, hopelessly beyond our abilities to understand them completely. They are more than the work of a lifetime. They cannot be finally mastered. And both piano playing and four-level analysis are skills that keep increasing, keep getting easier, keep becoming more joyful and exciting the more you do them. No great piano player ever gets to a point of, “I have arrived, and now I no longer have to practice.”

You do have to practice. And as you get better, you can play harder and harder pieces, and do so with greater depth and comprehension. It is exactly the same with four-level analysis. I am at a point now that when a sentence containing a gerund phrase as the subject of a sentence flies by, I watch it just as I might pause for a second to enjoy notes of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. I read my wife this paragraph, and she laughed and left the room.

Four-level analysis is like Julliard in a box. A few years of it, and you are different.

Four-level analysis is not a little skill that you learn and discard. What students can acquire is a four-level mind, an ongoing and exciting awareness of how words and sentence structures and phrases and clauses operate in their language environment, which includes everything they hear and read and write. It is a dramatically expanded form of language consciousness that makes writing and punctuating easier and more joyful.

What you will see as you get to know the MCT curriculum is that it introduces and then permanently incorporates four-level analysis as a mode of language consciousness, with examples that become increasingly subtle, or paradoxical, or beautiful, or architectural. As the student’s four-levelness increases, the stronger examples increase, and the entire process builds all of the language elements together into a coherent ability.

Each level of the MCT curriculum takes the student forward. If you have done the previous level, you are in a position to do the new examples more quickly and easily and to spot the paradoxes and mystery phenomena—to enjoy them. If you have not done the previous level, you have some learning to do, but you can still catch the train if you jump.

A final thought to punctuate the end of the comment: it takes about three minutes to do a four-level analysis. You can incorporate them as homework, group work, Socratic discussion, or as a daily warmup activity. You can pick a sentence out of a poem. It is incredibly flexible but not disruptive of your schedule. And each one you do is a thumbnail review of all of grammar.

I hope that this helps explain the importance of four-level analysis in the MCT books. I keep reading comments by parents to the effect of, “Just trust the curriculum.” Just trust the four-levels.

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