Tarzan and Jane’s Guide to Grammar

This is an unusual one. It’s a grammar book, but it’s written in a narrative style. And just look at that cover.

To give you a flavour of the book, here’s a little passage:

“You see, a noun is a word that – ”
Just then my body froze because a truly enormous, hairy spider was crawling up the table leg. I let out a scream that must have been heard for miles around. Tarzan was momentarily startled, but when he spotted the creature he grabbed a knife and slit the thing in half. Then he carried both halves outside.
When he came back in and sat down I seemed to be breathing normally again, so I continued, “Basically a noun is a word that names something. It can name a person, place, an idea, or an action”.

The story is that Jane has arrived in Africa, meets Tarzan, and wants to write some newspaper articles about him. Jane’s brilliant idea is that she could get Tarzan to write some of the articles. But to do that, she’ll have to teach him grammar, and that’s supposed to be the backdoor way she teaches the reader about grammar. It could be clever. It could be funny. But instead its a premise with hole so large you could squeeze an ungreased elephant through. The first thing that doesn’t smell right to me is when Tarzan responds to Jane’s idea by saying: “grammar boring”.

The whole point was that he didn’t know what grammar was, but this makes it sound like he gave it a shot at one point and doesn’t like it. When did that happen? Was there some kind of class in the treetops? How does he know it’s boring if he doesn’t know anything about it?

Jane’s expectations for the project are low:

“Judging from his speech, I didn’t have any doubt that he would make every grammatical error under the sun.”

What’s with the condescending attitude? Sorry lady, he’s only been raised in isolation by gorillas. It’s a miracle he can speak at all. I think you should view this as an opportunity to teach language to another human, rather than some burdensome task of correcting a deviant.

And besides, if you actually look at what Tarzan has said so far, even his crude two word utterances carry some basics of English grammar, like the correct word-ordering. For instance, he seems to know that adjectives precede nouns. He knows that the subject precedes the verb. He can do question word movement in “how teach grammar” and he know how to inflect for plural “how many rules?”

But ignoring all that Jane carries on with the monumental task and soon, Tarzan is cured:

“I worked with Tarzan over the next couple of weeks on basic sentence structure. … Anyway, after a while, Tarzan was speaking pretty much the way that normal people do and we were able to carry on normal conversation.”

So in one paragarph he just learns all of English syntax, morphology, semantics and pragmatics. AND THE BOOK GIVES NONE OF THAT INFORMATION. Why do this? What could the next 19 chapters possibly contain, if not that? I don’t understand. This “couple of weeks” they gloss over is what the whole book should have been about: Jane teaching him about English grammar.

So if Tarzan can speak normally – what else is there to do? Jane makes this incoherent offer:

“OK Tarzan,” I said with a smile, “are you ready to start learning grammar?”

What? If she’s only going to start teaching him grammar now, then what the hell was she doing the last three weeks? How can Tarzan possibly have learned about sentence structure without learning any grammar? And Tarzan responds with an equally baffling:

“Go ahead and teach me; I want to learn”.

What does he think he just spent a month learning? I mean, just look at that response he gave. It’s two complete sentences. From that alone we see he know how to form imperatives, how to conjoin sentences, how to mark pronouns for case, when to use infinitival forms, and probably some other stuff. I think that shows a pretty solid understanding of ‘grammar’, don’t you? What is there to improve upon? I don’t see a single error in there. Does the author even know what “grammar” is?

That’s a rhetorical question of course. The answer is no. The term seems to mean some murky collection of ‘things the author personally can remember about language and thinks are important enough to include in a book’. Topics range from parts of speech to punctuation and there’s no thread holding it all together. It’s the same laundry list of topics you can find in any old traditionally-based grammar book.

This one mistake really undermines the book and the author’s credibility from here on in. This is such a basic misunderstanding, or misuse of terms, that it’s hard to believe the author has ever received any proper education in grammar. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m over-reacting, but this is like a biology text called a whale a fish. Would you really just let that slip?

There’s one novelty: Jane actually goes through the 9 parts of speech. Usually, there are only eight. Where does she get the extra one from? She splits nouns and pronouns into two categories. And I approve of this departure from tradition: nouns and pronouns behave in different ways, and it makes sense to present them as distinct but related categories. Still, her definition of “noun”, which I quoted earlier, is mostly semantic, which is not the right approach.

To break up the grammar lessons, the book also has a slightly awkward romance plot:

“Well,” I said, “in the sentence ‘I consider myself lucky to have met a nice man like Tarzan’, the word myself is a reflexive pronoun. It reflects back on the word I.”
Tarzan blushed. And I think under the tale his foot moved back to where it was before.

Overall not the worst grammar book ever, but like so many grammar books it’s written by someone without a strong education in language analysis, so take it with a grain of salt. The novel format is cute, and maybe it will appeal to some people, but I personally found it distracting and hard to follow. And I just couldn’t get over the flawed premise and the nonsensical idea that you don’t know grammar if you don’t know explicit terminology.

The real problem with a novel format is that information is dispersed through out and hard to find. Nothing gets summed up in a table, or explained in any logical order. It’s just whatever Jane thought of in whatever order. Priority goes to the storyline, rather than to organizing this book in a way a grammar learner would want. This makes the book useless as reference material, because you have to go searching through the chapter to find what you want. But if you liked it, and you haven’t yet had enough of classic story characters teaching you about English, maybe you would enjoy the author’s other book “The Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder”.



Filed under Book Review, Linguistics

7 responses to “Tarzan and Jane’s Guide to Grammar

  1. Out of respect for *anthropologist* Edgar Rice Burroughs, I shall run up the hill outside until surrounded only by bush, cup my hands around my mouth in the manner of Johnny Weissmuller and let out a long “Aaargh!”.


  2. sdlong

    And I just couldn’t get over the flawed premise and the nonsensical idea that you don’t know grammar if you don’t know explicit terminology.

    You’d probably like this article, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” It’s about the use of grammar instruction as a means of writing instruction, but I think it’s applicable to TESL issues, too. Acquiring a language, like fostering a solid writing ability, is a subtle process that doesn’t really depend on being able to point out predicates or label objects.


    • Thanks for the link, that was very interesting. I was aware of some of that research, but that puts it all together really well and is a nice bibliography. Personally, I think a solution is to change “grammar” class time into “linguistics” class time. Trying to teach them grammar in order to get them to be better writers is clearly not working, so change the goals. Rather than ditch grammar education, use the time to learn some science. But obviously I’m biased. :-)


  3. Pingback: How To Speed Up Learning A Second Language – Learning A Second Language

  4. Even without the mistakes that you cite, I wouldn’t have much cared for it. I read the first couple of pages on the link to the cover and was underwhelmed. When I want information, I don’t need “noise” getting in the way of the information. And I learn quite well, thank you, without needing several pounds of sugar to make the medicine go down.


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