Is There a Grammar in This Language?
graduate student at Northern Illinois University
rom the seventh grade, through high school, and all the way until
the junior year of my BA work at Northern Illinois University,
I avoided grammar. Though I remember clearly the infamous AWK's
and RO's glaring at me from the margins of my returned essays
and reports, I wouldn't go so far as to say that that meant I was learning
"grammar" or even correct writing for that matter. There in green, blue,
and sometimes black ink was the evidence that someone--more powerful, more
knowing, more in control of the English language than I--had read through
my work and found something that wasn't quite right. So I'd rewrite,
revise, reword, and rethink everything, hoping that the next draft would
miraculously make more sense than the last. To me, good, clear writing was
something more akin to magic than skill. And though I had no clue what I
was or was not doing right, I fumbled my way through school and became an
I mentioned that I was able to avoid grammar (explicit, formal, and
traditional that is) until my junior year of BA work when I was required
by my English department to take and pass a course in grammar. And like
many of my classmates, I grumbled and complained about the requirement.
I knew how to write. What did I need grammar for? I'd received As and Bs
on my papers for as long as I could remember. I knew what I was doing.
Or so I thought. It wasn't until I'd struggled through a semester of
formal grammar, having minor epiphanies along the way (e.g., I found out
what a fragment was, why one shouldn't write "the reason is because," and
what a participle--those things that can dangle--is) that I discovered the
complexities of language. All those mysteries, all those circled sentences,
arrows, and check marks began to make sense. And I asked myself why no one
had bothered to tell me what I was doing wrong before. I had gone to good
schools. I was considered reasonably bright. So why weren't any of these
I have come to find out that not teaching grammar, explicitly and formally,
is a fairly well-excepted pedagogical approach in composition classrooms
today. Writers like Constance Weaver (1996), Rei Noguchi (1991), and T.
Hudson (1987) put forth that "the research" has shown grammar to be defunct,
useless, un-learnable, and possibly detrimental to the writing process and
students self-esteems. Though they hedge a bit, suggesting that a minimal
set of grammatical terms and concepts could be taught, these writers are
read by, quoted by, and believed in by many current teachers (at all levels)
and teachers-in-training. One need only pick up publications like The
English Journal to get an idea of the current unfortunate status of grammar
in the composition classroom.
I don't fully blame teachers who believe in the anti-grammarian rhetoric,
though some of them take it too far (to be sure), proclaiming that they
won't teach their students grammar and that no one else should either.
For example, in a recent graduate student on-line discussion group, graduate
teaching assistants mentioned that they were instructed not to teach grammar,
and some graduates admitted that even if they wanted to and were allowed to,
they wouldn't be able to do it well due to their lack of knowledge. Though I
am sure one debatable point would be what we mean by "teaching," the truth
still exists that at least some of us who are to be the English teachers of
the new millennia don't know about, don't care about, and don't believe in
grammar. This brings us a few questions, the most significant being "Is
grammar ultimately important?" And the short answer is yes.
In the "real world" and even in academia (especially higher education),
people react to what they perceive as being shoddy grammar (see Featheringill
1996, Fulwiler 1986, Hairston 1981, or LaRocque 1999 for examples). Reports
by researchers like Kantz and Yates (1994) investigated the tendencies of some
to judge others on their writing ability. Likewise, numerous writers and
business people from various fields moan and gripe about the poor quality of
writing they encounter. Corporations lose money, employees are passed over
for promotion, and students receive low grades in part because of their writing
ability--or the lack thereof.
The logic behind not teaching grammar seems sound enough, and some of the
reasons have obvious political motivations. Let me describe in brief three
of the reasons used for not teaching grammar and explain some of the fallacies
in them. First of, the idea that research has "proven" grammar's defunct status
needs to be re-evaluated. The "research" (both quantitative and qualitative) is
seriously flawed and sometimes embarrassingly so. Various writers (e.g., Kolln
1981, Newkirk 1978, and Tomlinson 1994) have pointed out the glaring errors in
the research since the 1970's, but the excuse continues to be used probably
because most of the teachers who use it read only research summaries (which
tend to be written by anti-grammarians) rather than the research itself. If
one were to actually read studies like Elley W.B., et.al. 1976; Frogner, 1939;
McQuade, 1980; or Mellon, 1969; she'd realize that many times the researchers
foregrounded what most supported the premise they wished to prove rather than
to remain objective (research no-no number 1), didn't control for significant
variables (no-no number 2), and sometimes didn't even bother running statistical
analyses (no-no number three).
The second idea used to support the anti-grammarian stance is the notion that
grammar can be acquired. This premise is flawed for numerous reasons, primarily
because the concept of "acquired" grammatical ability (often associated with Noam
Chomsky and modern American linguistics) pertains ONLY to language acquisition
(e.g., what we learn as children that allows us to form intelligible sentences).
The grammar that allows us to communicate orally is not the same "grammar" we use
when writing. Writing is a conscious act, and to do it "correctly," one need know
the prescriptive rules.
A third reason often used suggests that teaching formal grammar will not only hurt
students' self-esteem but also perpetuate social injustice and inequality (e.g., Lu
1994). This, in my opinion, is the most damaging and most inflammatory of arguments
used, namely because it implies that anyone who wants to teach grammar or who
believes that it has a place in the writing process is oppressing the masses,
marginalizing certain students, and being all around insensitive. Granted--no one
likes the list of Thou Shall Not's, which is too often the way prescriptive grammar
is taught in writing classes, but students aren't blind or unaware. They know all
too well about societal pressures to conform and about classicism. Anyone who has
done class editing with an overhead knows how cruel students can be when they read
a misspelled word or odd construction. While it may appear on the surface that
prescriptive writing is meant to segregate the have's from the have-not's, we must
remember that no one speaks prescriptively correct, no one, not the president, not
Bill Gates, no one. Students can grasp this. They can understand that the way we
write is not the same as the way we speak and that since writing, unlike speaking,
is learned consciously, they need to learn the form explicitly. The best way I
have read to describe prescriptive writing was written by Launsapch and Thomas
(2000), who said that Standard Written English is a dialect, one that everyone
can learn and use.
Though grammar seems foreign and unintelligible, it can help with certain aspects
of error analysis, demarcation, and correction. Having an appreciation for and
sensitivity to language and its use can help students to value the complexities
of their language (both spoken and written). We must remember that it is not the
subject matter that dulls or oppresses but, rather, the manner in which it is taught.
I know from personal experience that truly learning grammar is not easy, nor are the
benefits of "knowing" the rules and elements immediately apparent in writing quality.
But having the background gave me a sense of ownership and control over my writing,
and the benefits in other classes (foreign language, linguistics, etc.) have been
equally as impressive over time. Perhaps we need to stop scapegoating. Grammar is
neither the salvation nor the damnation of writing, but it is an important element
and one that we need to learn how to teach and learn how to use.
Elley W. B. (et. al). (1976). The role of grammar in a secondary school English
curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English, 10, 5-21.
Featheringill, R, et al. (1996). Native and nonnative student writers.
Business Communication Quarterly, 59 (3), 29-42.
Frogner, E. (1939). Grammar approach versus thought approach in teaching
sentence structure. English Journal, 28, 518-26.
Fulwiler, T., Michael, G., & Margaret, G. (1986). Changing faculty attitudes
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Hairston, M. (1981). Not all errors are created equal: Nonacademic readers in the professions
respond to lapses in usage. College English, 43(8), 794-806.
Hudson, T. (1987). Great, no, realistic expectations: Grammar and cognitive levels. English
Journal, 76(7), 82-83.
Kantz, M. , & Yates, R. (1994). Whose judgments? A survey of faculty responses to common and
highly irritating writing errors. http://www2.pct.edu/courses/evavra/ATEG/P5N13.HTM
Kolln, M. (1981). Closing the books on alchemy. College Composition and Communication, 32,
LaRocque, P. (1999). Language and lost credibility: Poor writing skills can jeopardize reader
trust. The Quill, 87.8, 38.
Launsapch, S., & Thomas, M. W. 2000. Beyond grammar: Linguistics in the composition
classroom. In Our Own Voice. Tina Lavonne Good and Leanne B. Warshauer. Boston:
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Lu, Min-zhan. (1994). Redefining the legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A critique of the politics
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development of syntactic fluency in English composition. NCTE Research Report, 10,
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