Arrant Pedantry

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Why Teach Grammar?

Today is National Grammar Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what grammar is and why we study it. Last week in the Atlantic, Michelle Navarre Cleary wrote that we should do away with diagramming sentences and other explicit grammar instruction. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that grammar instruction not only doesn’t help students write better, but it actually teaches them to hate writing.

It’s really no surprise—as an editor and a student of language, I’ve run into a lot of people who never learned the difference between a preposition and a participle and are insecure about their writing or their speech. I once had a friend who was apparently afraid to talk to me because she thought I was silently correcting everything she said. When I found out about it, I reassured her that I wasn’t; not only had I never noticed anything wrong with the way she talked, but I don’t worry about correcting people unless they’re paying me for it. But I worried that this was how people saw me: a know-it-all jerk who silently judged everyone else for their errors. I love language, and it saddened me to think that there are people who find it not fascinating but frustrating.

But given the state of grammar instruction in the United States today, it’s not hard to see why a lot of people feel this way. I learned hardly any sentence diagramming until I got to college, and my public school education in grammar effectively stopped in eighth or ninth grade when I learned what a prepositional phrase was. In high school, our grammar work consisted of taking sentences like “He went to the store” and changing them to “Bob went to the store” (because you can’t use he without an antecedent; never mind that such a sentence would not occur in isolation and would surely make sense in context).

Meanwhile, many students are marked down on their papers for supposed grammar mistakes (which are usually matters of spelling, punctuation, or style): don’t use contractions, don’t start a sentence with conjunctions, don’t use any form of the verb be, don’t write in the first person, don’t refer to yourself in the third person, don’t use the passive voice, and on and on. Of course most students are going to come out of writing class feeling insecure. They’re punished for failing to master rules that don’t make sense.

And it doesn’t help that there’s often a disconnect between what the rules say good writing is and what it actually is. Good writing breaks these rules all the time, and following all the rules does little if anything to make bad writing good. We know the usual justifications: students have to master the basics before they can become experts, and once they become experts, they’ll know when it’s okay to break the rules.

But these justifications presuppose that teaching students not to start a sentence with a conjunction or not to use the passive voice has something to do with good writing, when it simply doesn’t. I’ve said before that we don’t consider whether we’re giving students training wheels or just putting sticks in their spokes. Interestingly, Cleary uses a similar argument in her Atlantic piece: “Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write.”

I’m still not convinced, though, that learning grammar has much at all to do with learning to write. Having a PhD in linguistics doesn’t mean you know how to write well, and being an expert writer doesn’t mean you know anything about syntax and morphology beyond your own native intuition. And focusing on grammar instruction may distract from the more fundamental writing issues of rhetoric and composition. So why worry about grammar at all if it has nothing to do with good writing? Language Log’s Mark Liberman said it well:

We don’t put chemistry into the school curriculum because it will make students better cooks, or even because it might make them better doctors, much less because we need a relatively small number of professional chemists. We believe (I hope) that a basic understanding of atoms and molecules is knowledge that every citizen of the modern world should have.

It may seem like a weak defense in a world that increasingly focuses on marketable skills, but it’s maybe the best justification we have. Language is amazing; no other animal has the capacity for expression that we do. Language is so much more than a grab-bag of peeves and strictures to inflict on freshman writing students; it’s a fundamental part of who we are as a species. Shouldn’t we expect an educated person to know something about it?

So yes, I think we should teach grammar, not because it will help people write better, but simply because it’s interesting and worth knowing about. But we need to recognize that it doesn’t belong in the same class as writing or literature; though it certainly has connections to both, linguistics is a separate field and should be treated as such. And we need to teach grammar not as something to hate or even as something to learn as a means to an end, but as a fascinating and complex system to be discovered and explored for its own sake. In short, we need to teach grammar as something to love.

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Grammar and Morality

Lately there’s been an article going around titled “The Real George Zimmerman’s Really Bad Grammar”, by Alexander Nazaryan. I’m a week late getting around to blogging about it, but at the risk of wading into a controversial topic with a possibly tasteless post, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the arguments and analyses made in the article.

The first thing that struck me about the article is the explicit moralization of grammar. At the end of the first paragraph, the author, a former English teacher, says that when he forced students to write notes of apology, he explained to them that “good grammar equaled a clean conscience.” (This guy must’ve been a joy to have as a teacher.)

But then the equivocation begins. Although Nazaryan admits that Zimmerman “has bigger concerns than the independent clause”, he nevertheless insists that some of Zimmerman’s errors “are both glaring and inexcusable”. Evidently, quitting one’s job and going into hiding for one’s own safety is no excuse for any degree of grammatical laxness.

Nazaryan’s grammatical analysis leaves something to be desired, too. He takes a quote from Zimmerman’s website—“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing”—and says, “Why does Zimmerman insert an absolutely needless comma between subject (granted, a complex one) and verb? I can’t speculate on that, but he seems to have treated ‘is that good men do nothing’ as a nonrestrictive clause that adds extra information to the sentence.” This sort of comma, inserted between a complex subject and its verb, used to be completely standard, but it fell out of use in edited writing in the last century or two. It’s still frequently found in unedited writing, however.

I’m not expecting Nazaryan to know the history of English punctuation conventions, but he should at least recognize that this is a thing that a lot of people do, and it’s not for the reason that he suspects. After all, in what sense could the entire predicate of a sentence be a “nonrestrictive clause that adds extra information”? He’s actually got it backwards, in a sense: it’s the complement clause of the subject—“necessary for the triumph of evil”—that’s being set off, albeit with a single, unpaired comma. (And I can’t resist poking fun at the fact that he says “I can’t speculate on that” and the immediately proceeds to speculate on it.)

Nazaryan does make some valid points—that Zimmerman may be overreaching in his prose at times, using words and constructions he hasn’t really mastered—but the whole exercise makes me uncomfortable. (Yes, I have mixed feelings about writing this post myself.) Picking grammatical nits when one man has been killed and another charged with second-degree murder is distasteful enough; equating good grammar with morality makes me squirm.

This is not to say that there is no value in editing, of course. This recent study found that editing contributes to the readers’ perception of the value and professionalism of a story. I did a small study of my own for a class a few years ago and found the same thing. A good edit improves the professional appearance of a story, which may make readers more likely to trust or believe it. However, this does not mean that readers will necessary see an unedited story as a mark of guilt.

Nazaryan makes his thesis most explicit near the end, when he says, “The more I think about this, the more puzzling it becomes. Zimmerman is accused of being a careless vigilante who played fast and loose with the law; why would he want to give credence to that argument by playing fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar?” I’m sorry, but who in their right minds—who other than Alexander Nazaryan, that is—believes that petty grammatical violations can be taken as a sign of lawless vigilantism?

But wait—there’s still an out. According to Nazaryan, all Zimmerman needs is a good copyeditor. Of course, the man has quit his job and is begging for donations to pay for his legal defense and living expenses, but I guess that’s irrelevant. Obviously he should’ve gotten his priorities straight and paid for a copyeditor first to obtain grammatical—and thereby moral—absolution.

Nazaryan squeezes in one last point at the end, and it’s maybe even more ridiculous than his identification of clean grammar with a clean conscience: “One of the aims of democracy is that citizens are able to articulate their rights in regard to other citizens and the state itself; when one is unable to do so, there is a sense of collective failure—at least for this former teacher.” You see, bad grammar doesn’t just indicate an unclean conscience; it threatens the very foundations of democracy.

I’m feeling a sense of failure too, but for entirely different reasons than Alexander Nazaryan.

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How to Write Better

I’m sharing my advice with aspiring superb writers in partnership with Grammarly grammar checker.

This isn’t going to be my typical sort of post, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on my own writing and the lessons I’ve learned from graduate school and from working on my own blog. There’s no foolproof formula that you can follow to ensure better writing, because everyone’s different and every piece of writing is different, but there are some general principles that have helped me and will likely help others too. I’m going to focus most on academic writing, but the principles are probably applicable to a lot of different genres.

Read

The first thing to do is read a lot. Read widely and deeply—newspapers, magazines, books, and blog posts, fiction and nonfiction. Read stuff just for fun, and read stuff that makes you think. Read stuff that challenges your opinions.

Try to engage with what you read, too; don’t just read passively. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found this especially helpful for academic work. Try to evaluate whatever arguments the author is making; can you think of reasons why the author might be wrong, or can you see an aspect of the argument that they’ve overlooked? Spotting a weakness in someone else’s article or a gap in current research can provide you with a great jumping-off point for your own work.

Doing all of this will expose you not only to a wide range of ideas but also to different ways of expressing ideas—new words and phrases, new rhetorical strategies—that you can start to add to your writer’s toolkit.

Research

My first semester of grad school was a rather rude awakening. For one of my classes, I had to find, read, and give hundred-word summaries on thirty articles within about a month. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, but at the time it was just about overwhelming. As an undergraduate, I’d hardly ever had to do library research, so I simply didn’t know where to start. I knew how to find books, but finding good articles was something new. I felt like I’d been tossed in the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.

It was rough, but I managed to get my head above water and write a decent paper at the end of the semester. But more importantly, I’d learned some valuable research skills that have served me well throughout the rest of my grad school experience. Even outside of academia, knowing how to research will allow you to explore subjects in much greater depth.

Take Notes

I’ll admit it: all through grade school and college, I was a terrible note-taker. I have a good enough memory that I never really needed to take notes in class, but I’ve found that taking notes as I read is one of the best things I can do for my own writing. Not only am I able to jot down a lot of quotes and citations that come in handy later, but it helps me better reflect on what I’m reading.

Even if you’re just blogging and not writing term papers, taking notes or keeping a list of interesting links can provide you with inspiration.

Practice

The only way to get good at writing is to do a lot of it. Maybe there are some truly gifted people out there who can sit down at a keyboard for the first time and bang out the great American novel, but for everyone else, no matter what their field or genre, good writing takes a lot of work. As the author Orson Scott Card says,

You learn more from writing a 100,000-word novel than from any number of classes. (Except, of course, the ones I teach.) (OK, I was including them as well.)

I also tell my students that every writer has to produce ten thousand pages of pure drivel. Some people have to write all ten thousand pages before they produce anything good. Some of us are luckier and get to have our lousy pages spread out over our whole career, so we can be earning money along the way.

Edit

This is one of my greatest weaknesses: I hate editing my own work. By the time I’m finished writing something, I usually don’t want to look at it anymore. But I’ve found that it’s best to sit on it for a few days and then take another look at it. If you start editing it immediately, you’re more likely to overlook your own errors; your ideas are still fresh in your mind, so your mental autocorrect takes over. Come back a few days later, though, and you’ll see it with fresh eyes. And if you can, get someone else to look over your work for you too.

Engage

This is something I’ve found especially helpful with my blogging. For the first few years, I blogged in fits and starts, sometimes going several months between posts. When you don’t post, nobody reads your blog, which saps your motivation to post. I finally broke the cycle after joining Twitter. Suddenly I’m able to interact much more closely with lots of interesting people, including fellow editors, linguists, lexicographers, and others. I’ve discovered some other great blogs that I now read regularly. Stuff I read on or via Twitter has often served as the inspiration for my own posts, and as I’ve posted more regularly, my readership has grown.

Final Thoughts

As I said above, there’s no secret formula for good writing, and even general tips like these might not work for everyone, especially if you’re writing in a completely different field. And I know that this is a bit of a departure from what I normally post, but hopefully it’ll be helpful to someone out there.

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