General Grammar Lessons from Motivation, Language, Music, and Graphics

Ken Burke’s A Grammar of Motives is the fourth “grammar” I’ve engaged with that explicitly identified itself as such1. The first two were English and French. The third was the grammar of graphics, largely through the R ggplot2 package’s implementation2. It only just clicked why the concept of grammar itself is so powerful and why a person might be motivated to learn (or make) one in any creative context they regularly work in. Burke’s “dramatic pentad” for analyzing motives includes an “agent,” in a “scene,” with an “agency,” who “acts,” for a “purpose.” If I was to apply the pentad to my motivation for writing this, I (agent) am in a pandemic (scene) with access to research materials (agency) writing about grammar (act) to better understand how we might teach why it’s useful generally (purpose).

The purpose of a society-as-agent acting to set up schools is to purify educational experiences in a safe nurturing environment. Further committing to Burke’s language, with school we are sculpting the scenes young agents find themselves in and sanction an agency of specific actions hoping that they come to understand and realize a higher possible self. Structuring school experiences is a double-edged sword. We expose people to ideas and materials they otherwise may not have discovered on their own, but at the cost of asking them to set aside more spontaneous interests. One of the most painful things a learner can say is what are we ever going to use this for, which I admit I may have done when being asked to identify nouns and verbs or diagram subjects and predicates in sentences for the first time. Often in schools understanding the later real-world purpose is murky at best. A grade easily becomes the immediate purpose as a surrogate and gets baked into our formal incentive (or motivational) structures that have social consequences3.

I realize now the first set of rules that might be classified as a “grammar” I ever actually learned never directly identified itself as such. It was embedded in music theory, but it was clear from the beginning what I could use those ideas for4. My 8-year-old self was more than willing to sit with books about pitches and their durations, how they were notated, how their harmonies could be analyzed, and how to use that general knowledge to reproduce the Star Wars theme or Für Elise at a piano. Read the notes, press the keys, and there’s an immediate reward if you did it right. A mom and a few grandparents who played a little demonstrated where I might be later in life, and recordings demonstrated just how wide the musical world was. The encouraging scene I found myself in, the tools I had available, and my purpose were all clear. Now I’m in that position later in my life where I can theoretically play anything for enjoyment and I can compose new musical ideas.

Clarity of purpose seems to be the potential rocket-fuel of motivation. When you know where you’re going and why, there’s a mental focus able to dart between technical problems in material being learned with little unnecessary stress so long as progress is being made. This should not be taken as a panacea for coercing people into learning specific things on an imposed schedule, but there are four approaches to clarifying purpose I can see:

  • A teacher is well equipped to explain the heart of how a concept will be useful for future actions

  • A student is well equipped to seek out the heart of how a concept will be useful for future actions

  • Meaningful future actions using the concept being learned are ideally only a few seconds away

  • Teachers and students look to already familiar concepts to relate to what is being learned

There is also the case where a purpose was already clear coming in. A reason I’ve pointed so many aspiring data scientists to R for Data Science as an introductory book is because data visualization is the first substantive material covered5. It’s ideal for learning programming because of how immediately obvious changes in input then map to meaningful output a few seconds later. If software installation is taken care of, even most teenagers are able to work their way through some powerful concepts in a few hours facilitated by a well thought out grammar for working with graphics. The grammar eases the cognitive burden of picking up additional possible aesthetic mappings and carrying them over to additional kinds of plots.

So is trying to explain the importance of grammar as a general concept early on doable? Can pointing to a pattern in notation and organization strategies across contexts excite as much as the content in any one? Imagine a 13-year-old who is identifying nouns and verbs in a language class, creating data visualizations in a mathematics class (because it’s the resource-rich future and we’ve moved on from single-purpose calculators as the auxiliary tool of choice, so it isn’t as much of a reach as we would imagine it now), analyzing motivations in a history class, and making music in a band class. How coherent of a school experience might be possible if purpose started regularly clicking and motivation was high? Could a well positioned science or philosophy teacher link those things together to light some kind of fire? Music notation was the first graphical display of real world “data” with time on the x-axis and pitch on the y-axis6, long before William Playfair created conventional statistics graphics in the 18th century. He put time on the x-axis and trade balances on the y-axis in one early chart7. Isn’t that interesting? Making sentence generators may be a fun use of grammar concepts in the language class8, which could turn into silly lyrics for a choir session. The specifics of any one potential cross-over aren’t as important as realizing fruit exists in every case, and most certainly do not require computers or programming9. A teacher ideally might investigate where a student’s spontaneous motivations are and would enthusiastically relate them to potential paths of learning (and be granted the agency to provide ad-hoc rails to their pupils with their expertise for taking student motivation into account). A student would ideally recognize how the experiences of going deep into one area they enjoy spontaneously could be used to investigate what makes another area enjoyable for others10. They would recognize where they might use the new ideas socially or to create.

Of course, our modern institutional philosophy of education is impoverished. Bureaucratic paranoia has led to a narrow conception of what school can be and who is trusted with degrees of free agency11. In our efforts to squish learning into legible standard experiences that can be represented as data and visualized using a grammar of graphics, a grammar of motives can literarily articulate how that paradigm might be invisibly backfiring at a scale unknown outside the practical lens of its surveillance systems and scope of scientific methods12. Our higher purpose in education is to develop a deep understanding, or acquiring equipment for living as Burke would say. In addition to what are we ever going to use this for, the other canary in the coal mine might be will this be on the test. We measure actions (skills or demonstrations of understanding) with tests under the assumption a short run score is a safe indicator we are facilitating skill development and deeper understanding in the long run. When a necessarily limited measure of an action of an agent in a scene surreptitiously transforms also into the psychologically dominant purpose of the action because of the social importance placed on that surrogate measure, we might assign the label surrogation to this grammatical faux-pas13. We would want to look for and correct this in the same way we spot double-negatives in some language contexts, parallel 5ths in some musical systems of harmonic motion, and dual axis charts in data visualization. We would have to judge, not calculate, whether some part of our pentad of acts, purposes, scenes, agencies, and agents have become corrupted and consciously reform those elements14. We would have to recognize the dangers of optimizing for a few limited measures through institutional or social pressure, which is difficult given our cultural anxieties and quantophrenic inclinations15.

A grammar’s usefulness in a general sense then is to help one adapt gracefully to new challenges and identify common errors in a specific creative context. Being grammatically correct does not guarantee a useful result, but grammar does help us compose ourselves so that we may more precisely articulate problems and compose more adequate solutions. Or beautiful solutions. It is beneficial or beautiful then to learn multiple grammars or dialects with similar purposes inside a single language’s domain (and then other languages). A grammar’s ultimate purpose is to allow us to more consciously or freely spend our limited cognitive resources on higher purposes. As examples:

  • To represent an idea in composing a message

  • To define musical motions in composing a song

  • To see underlying patterns in a data set in composing a graphic

Motivation can then be thought of as composed in a way conceptually similar to an essay, a song, or a data visualization: roughly, to realize a possibility in composing a motivation. A motivation can be composed for the self or suggested to others. In my interpretation, for either an individual or a society:

  • An agent asks who they are and who they want to be

  • The scene challenges who they are and suggests who they need to be

  • An agency is the structure of what they can do or means available for acting

  • A purpose is why they do what they do in pursuit of a possible future

  • An act is what they do to affect reality

Given our dramatically different imposed scene from normal and relatively stable higher purpose, pandemic isolation may have been the ideal time to grant people in education environments the agency to locally experiment with roles and responsibilities16. We should have made it possible to go deep on a passion or new skill if the motivation was there despite the chaos. Our school structures that require juggling prescribed demands may even be limiting; our scientific methods have no way of predicting what would happen in the long run if periods of independent, self-motivated, but institutionally supported deep learning were given a chance to get going on occasion in all of our childhoods and young adulthoods. Extended concentration with minimal distractions in solitude may even be what’s necessary to reach higher orders of progress on a learning curve. To borrow terms from another context, we might conceive of a velocity of learning, an acceleration of learning, and when pressing on long enough while motivated a sudden jerk of learning. Jerk would be where entirely new gears are found to be brought back to other contexts, like what happens when the general power of grammar shifts into place.

Many of the ideas above developed in ongoing conversations with Pat Barrett about education and Suspended Reason about surrogation, both of whom have made the pandemic a little easier.

  1. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley, California : University of California Press, 1969).↩︎

  2. For the deep dive, see Leland Wilkinson et al., The Grammar of Graphics, 2nd edition (New York: Springer, 2005)

    For how the grammar is implemented in the R programming environment, see Hadley Wickham, “A Layered Grammar of Graphics,” Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 3–28,

    Wickham’s preprint is available free here.↩︎

  3. It is damning that John Dewey’s lamentation that helping others was becoming a “school crime” in The School and Society is even more relevant today.↩︎

  4. One prominent example of a musical grammar is counterpoint. See Johann Joseph Fux, The Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus Ad Parnassum, trans. Alfred Mann, 1st edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1965).↩︎

  5. Hadley Wickham and Garrett Grolemund, R for Data Science: Import, Tidy, Transform, Visualize, and Model Data, 1st edition (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2017).↩︎

  6. For an account of music-notation-as-graph, see Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, New Ed edition (Cambridge England ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997).↩︎

  7. Playfair published many line, bar, and area charts in his Commercial and Political Atlas in 1786.↩︎

  8. This particular anecdote is conveyed in Seymour A. Papert, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas, 2nd edition (New York: Basic Books, 1993).↩︎

  9. For a cautionary view from the ground of what happened in an attempt to implement Papert’s ideas, see Morgan G. Ames, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019). The OLPC project and other similar charismatic ed-tech projects would do well to center Papert’s idea that “what is good for the professional is good for the child,” which today I would take to mean professional grade resources and solid supportive relationships. Though I think her account of implementation problems is valuable, Ames’ characterization of Papert’s theoretical writing does not line up at all with what I have read. There are more details fleshing out what happened with the project in Mark Guzdial’s blogpost “Checking our hubris with checklists: Learning a lesson from the XO Laptop” and comments from Alan Kay and David Cavallo that respond to Ames, but this is an ongoing debate.↩︎

  10. Ibn Khaldun suggests in The Muqadimmah that learning one subject well is a springboard for learning the next, and that teachers should only provide instruction for one at a time. Maybe two for capable students, but any more than that serves to confuse.↩︎

  11. See Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 3rd edition (New York: Basic Books, 2016).↩︎

  12. For more on legibility, see James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 0 edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).

    For more on paradigms in science and how they shift, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th edition (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012).↩︎

  13. Surrogation as coined by Choi, Hect, and Tayler is defined as when managers “fail to fully appreciate the fact that measures are merely representations of the strategic constructs, and act as though the measures are the construct of interest.”

    See Jongwoon (Willie) Choi, Gary W. Hecht, and William B. Tayler, “Lost in Translation: The Effects of Incentive Compensation on Strategy Surrogation,” The Accounting Review 87, no. 4 (July 1, 2012): 1135–63,

    See Jongwoon (Willie) Choi, Gary W. Hecht, and William B. Tayler, “Strategy Selection, Surrogation, and Strategic Performance Measurement Systems,” Journal of Accounting Research 51, no. 1 (2013): 105–33,↩︎

  14. For more on this point, I suggest the last chapter titled Against the Imperialism of Instrumental Reason from Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, 1st edition (San Francisco: W H Freeman & Co, 1976).

    For an investigation into how rankings and test scores shaped law schools, see Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder, Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, 1st edition (New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2016).↩︎

  15. For more on institutional and public pressure, see Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers, Reprint edition (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996).

    “Quantophrenia” is a term coined by Pitirim Sorokin, by which I mean a pathological reliance on quantification. It is sorely needed in discussions of motivations and institutional cultures. See Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin, Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences, Gateway ed edition (H. Regnery, 1965).

    For considering how anxieties drive epistemic virtues, see Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, Illustrated edition (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2010).↩︎

  16. We were long overdue for a shakeup even before the pandemic. See bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

    For a deep treatment of agency and how games should be given serious attention as an art that enables trying out alternative social structures in a safe environment, see C. Thi Nguyen, Games: Agency As Art (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020).↩︎