To discuss the ongoing debate over the importance of grammar, Ong utilizes the work of two grammarians, James Harris and Otto Jespersen, both of whom he sees as "historical points of reference" for his discussion of the shift away from emphasizing grammar. Harris, an eighteenth century grammarian, advocated "universal grammar," which contains all the possible uses of grammar and arranges them according to a spatial pattern. Using the scientizing approach so typical of the Renaissance period and its aftermath, Harris asserted that grammar was closer to written language than to spoken language; in fact, "the principles of grammar 'cause' writing, writing 'causes' reading, and reading 'causes' oral speech" (400).
While Ong understands why Harris and others (from the time of Cicero to the present day) associate grammar with writing rather than with speech (primarily because sound is much more difficult to organize and categorize speech), he believes that modern linguistics, with its premise that grammar derives from speech rather than writing, does more to acknowledge the importance of sounds. Nevertheless, even linguistics ends up categorizing sounds in an artificial way, but it does so in a manner that is at least aware of the limits of scientific views of reality and, of course, of grammar itself.
Ultimately, Ong concludes, the turn away from grammar in the twentieth
century is not something people should perceive negatively. On the
contrary, deemphasizing grammar marks a "maturation" in the study of language.
Not only does linguistics focus on the everchanging aspects of speech and
writing within English, but also the field exhibits global awareness by
looking at other languages outside English. Typical of this development
in the study of language is the work of Otto Jespersen, whose notion of
"living" grammar (rather than "universal" grammar) places the focus of
grammar on communication between humans.