Sense and Nonsense about Grammar

The most common reason given (and refuted) for the teaching of grammar is that of usage. Even though most of my students write correctly 95%-of the time, it is clear that ANY mistakes will stand out when it comes to actual speaking and writing. Like a car with one bad sparkplug, or one worn tire, it is the fault that gets the attention and produces the disaster. Applications and resumes with errors are buried in the dustbin. As well, certainly, there are times when one wishes to speak the language correctly. "I seen" is popular in this area, but any misuse of the language in certain situations (many) is a way of attaching a red flag to one's lack of education. Of course, one can hear:

"I want you to come with Mary and I", and

"I laid on the beach for an hour" (no object intended), and

"He is quite an aggravating person"

and the like from all quarters and all "educational" levels, but ubiquity is surely a poor guiding principle. Many critics of grammar instruction will point out that we speak various kinds of English relative to our audiences, but if we cannot keep these languages separated through conscious control of our sentences, we are left in a vulnerable position. "Yo bro" may be cool, ill advised, corny, dangerous, or just plain stupid, depending on the circumstances. Being able to link language to a wide range of audiences is the mark of an educated person. The inability to do so is a pity. The English classroom gets far too little time to perform its far too broad mandate, but failing to provide our children with the power to control something as self-defining as language seems unconscionable.

There are many mountains to climb in literature-land, but the climbers should be adequately outfitted. If the demands on the students involve only the high-plains walking tours of student-directed learning, peer approval, platitudes and slogans, then sneakers will do fine. No point in being over equipped if one will do no climbing. The basic equipment should have been supplied by the middle grades. Sadly, I have students in grade 12 each year receiving grammar instruction for the first time. I have taught student teachers for twenty years and have seen them ill prepared to explain clearly to a student what is wrong with her language. Only rarely did an education professor make the knowledge of grammar a priority for inclusion in the student teacher's toolbox. Have they all "eaten of the insane root", to deny the usefulness of grammatical language to the study of English, and even the self. What language do they use to explain the error of a student who writes: " He is as tall as me"? Without the knowledge of "subject" or "clause" the answer must be: "Do it like this because I say it's right. Over time you might recognize a pattern and not make the mistake again." This is poor way to find and give an education.

Granted, it is possible for a teacher to over emphasize grammar and keep it isolated from living examples of language. But, this is just poor teaching, an expression of inexperience, or character, and has nothing to say against the principle of teaching students what goes on when they write, or utter, the words which describe and define themselves. Teaching usage is the sort of thing that can be done as the whole language crowd suggests: as the need arises. Some general principles combined with a good handbook (every student with a handbook? Dream on!) should suffice. Rather, it is the very language of language which needs to be taught and ingested as early as possible. As math students should know their multiplication tables without having to look it up, indeed, with the immediate ease provided through memorization and frequent application, so too students should know the eight parts of speech, the various kinds of phrases, and the clauses. Know, not know of. Here again the obfuscators weigh in with noise about English grammar being a poor borrowing from Latin, as if it were a matter of nationalism; or, that traditional grammar isn't useful anymore because the cutting-edge linguists don't find it altogether to their liking. My experience is that even a rudimentary knowledge of traditional grammar is empowering." If a linguist wants to throw anomalies at me which defy grammatical description, good for him. but how does that negate the overall, and obvious, usefulness of the system? Is this a form of grammatical Utopianism? If I know that "as" is normally a conjunction and, as such, will introduce a dependent adverb clause, and if I know what ellipsis and subject-of-a-verb mean, then I can see for myself why "He is as tall as I" is the correct from. If I don't wish to use the correct form, that is all well and good, but at least I will know what I am doing. I am pro-choice in that I want students to have the power to choose language which will neither embarrass nor impede them.

Still, this is all on the level of "proper use" and, for me, this is the least interesting of the reasons to study grammar. The second reason is aesthetics. If a student wishes to comment on the style of a writer she will refer to diction, tone, point of view and so on. Much of this might be done without recourse to grammar-talk, but when it comes to syntax, the student without grammar is out of luck. No doubt Faulkner and Hemingway will look and sound different, but to actually speak clearly about those differences will require a knowledge of various syntactical combinations. A student may have the unconscious ability to use parallel structure some of the time, but without the language of phrases and clauses it will remain unconscious. Is reading Keats' "When I have Fears" made any less impressive when the mind sees and the ear hears the adverb clauses marking the structure and rhythm of this single-sentence sonnet? If we really think that in this we "murder to dissect," then we might as well give up the whole enterprise. No metaphors or assonance or history of the sonnet or meters -let's just read poems without guidance, and find as little as we like. Literary appreciation begins, as with any study, with the acquisition of certain skills. First attempts may be awkward. but it is only through leaning how to use the tools, that the craftsman. or artist succeeds in his trade. Standing in the woods with a bird guide in hand straining to fit the fleeting vision with a picture in the book may seem like a poor way to take a walk in the woods. But it is really just a different way. Also, the effort of this early stage of acquiring knowledge leads to that effortless knowledge which is not unlike Love.

"Learning across the curriculum" should mean seeing that grammar and poetry are as related as dribbling and basketball. Just dribbling for a season might get more than a little tiresome, but frequent practice leads to better basketball. We have a generation of athletes who have been offered poor coaching. They have been told that their scoring is as good as Jordan's, their defense as strong as Pippen's, their three point shooting as good as Larry Bird's. Whom do we think we are fooling?