Is There a Grammar in This Language?

Meredith Larson, 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 
English major.

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 
things mentioned?

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.


Works Cited

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 
	toward writing.   In T. Fulwiler & Young, A. (Eds.), Writing across the disciplines: 
	Research into practice  (pp. 53-67). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
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,  
	139-151.
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:  
	Allyn and Bacon.   232-241.
Lu, Min-zhan.  (1994).  Redefining the legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A critique of the politics
	of linguistic innocence.  In G. Tate, et al (Eds.), The writing teacher's sourcebook 
	(3rd ed.) (pp. 327-337). New York: Oxford University Press.
McQuade, Finlay (1980).  Examining A Grammar Course:  The Rationale and the	Result.  The 
	English Journal, 69, 26-30.
Mellon, J. C. (1969).   Transformational sentence combining: A method of enchanting the 
	development of syntactic fluency in English composition.  NCTE Research Report, 10, 
	Champaign: NCTE.
Newkirk, T. (1978). Grammar instruction and writing: What we don't know. English Journal, 67, 
	46-48.
Noguchi, R. R. (1991).  Grammar and the teaching of writing: Limits and possibilities.   Urbana: 
	National Council of Teachers of English.
Tomlinson, D. (1994).  Errors in the research into the effectiveness of grammar teaching. English in 
	Education, 28(1), 20-6.
Weaver, C. (1996).   Teaching grammar in context.  Portsmouth: Boyton/Cook Publishers.