On The Issue of Grammar

I believe I was taught grammar in the fourth grade, and I never studied it again until I took an adult education class at the New School a few decades later.  It doesn’t surprise me then the findings of this article, in which freshman college students have poor grammar skills because they are simply not being taught the basics.  Why has this been happening?* You can’t just blame the glut of media.  These kids are in school for six or more hours per day.  Reading.  Writing.  Arithmeticing.  It’s difficult for me to see how a student goes through twelve years of school without writing a paper.   How does a student get into college who writes “cuz” instead of “because” or uses an emoticon in an essay? As writers & readers do we have a responsibility to make sure the next generation of potential readers understands basic grammar?

* Admittedly, this has been happening since at least Strunk & White and possibly for much longer than that.  But in an age where the written word is the second most popular form of information transfer (the first being the visual medium of television), one would expect a much higher literacy level.

2 Replies to “On The Issue of Grammar”

  1. “Cuz” and emoticons aren’t really a problem of grammar (even with an elastic definition of “grammar”), but rather of purpose and audience — emoticons and abbreviations are entirely appropriate to texting, emailing friends, etc. Informal situations — most of the writing students do in their actual lives at this point in those lives. It’s an easy fix for any teacher who wants to pay attention to it and not just scrawl red marks on papers. Sure, I have to tell a few university students every term that “cuz” and other such things are too informal for academic writing, but they learn it quickly enough. The problem is not one of grammar or spelling or style or usage, but of the forces that shape classroom priorities and student perceptions of those priorities.

    Unfortunately, the push toward more and more standardized testing hasn’t helped student writing. Large classes and standardized tests hurt even the best teacher’s ability to help students with their writing, and that includes learning about diction, audience, and purpose.

    Any of us who use the internet live in as rich a textual environment as any that’s ever existed, and it’s important for students to learn things about diction and audience that may not have been as important before. Heck, until the 20th century, plenty of schools didn’t even bother to teach English because who cares what people do with that purely utilitarian language: the real test of knowledge is Latin and Greek! (This is part of what led to so many English grammars being based on Latin, even though the languages are … somewhat different…)

    From a linguistic standpoint, it’s all quite fascinating, and I wish more students were taught not “the rules” but the history and (il)logic of the rules — I advocated this to a class of English Education majors last year, in fact, but the problem is that they themselves don’t have any sense of “the rules” being anything other than dictates handed down by some Grammar God. Some people complain about English teachers not knowing those supposed rules and thus not being able to teach them; I think the problem is deeper — too many English teachers, in my experience, have a head full of all sorts of rules, most of which are little more than idiosyncratic preferences. Any class that includes The Elements of Style should also include Geoffrey Pullum’s critique of it, and then set the students to researching and debating it all. Such an exercise will teach them more than an entire year of tests and quizzes on the parts of speech.

    David Crystal, one of the world’s experts on the English language, has written a couple of good books about such things — The Fight for English and Txting: the gr8 db8. And the Language Log blog is a wonderful resource, too. (Obviously, my sympathies are with the descriptivists and historicists, even though I flinch whenever someone confuses lie and lay. We’re all allowed our pet peeves! Indeed, I give my students a list of mine…)

  2. Matt, thanks! I’ll be teaching an intro to writing speculative fiction in a few weeks, which may include pre-college students, and I’ll keep those books you mentioned in mind.

    I’m more of a descriptivist myself. I don’t think there is necessarily an uber-correct grammar, but I think, as one teacher so eloquently put it, you must know the rules before you break them.

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