March 4, 2014

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.

Grammar, Writing 12 Replies to “Why Teach Grammar?”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


12 thoughts on “Why Teach Grammar?

    Author’s gravatar

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but I had little grammar instruction in high school. The entire school had to take what we lovingly referred to as “useless” (usage) tests twice a year, I think. The test was a collection of 20 or so sentences that you had to correct. Freshmen tests had errors underlined; all the others you had to discover for yourself. So it’s possible our lit teachers reviewed grammar with us before the tests. Otherwise, I had no grammar instruction between 8th grade and college (and then only in Freshman comp).

    I agree that it’s valuable to study grammar because a well-rounded person should know the basics instead of spouting memorized zombie rules, but learning to write is a different skill.

    I like the program my kids’ school uses to teach writing: (coincidentally, also a client of mine). It teaches writing, including the brainstorming and freewriting that teaches you to be creative, but it also teaches self-editing and peer-editing to refine ideas and writing.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’m coming at this as an ESL teacher, but I think of grammar as a set of tools.

    The present simple is a tool for talking about universal truths. Relative clauses let you be brief and/or vary your sentence structure. The passive lets you change the emphasis from the subject to the object. And so on.

    I don’t think we should think of grammar as rules. We should think of grammar as possibilities.

    Author’s gravatar

    Ooh, I want to live on Planet Cleary, where students spend *too much* time learning grammar and sentence diagramming! On the planet where I grew up, kids mostly learned how to French inhale and score beer.

    Most college-educated adults I talk to are mortified that they don’t know what an antecedent or object pronoun is. The woman who was worried you were judging her grammar — I hear that almost every week! More than half the readers of my grammar column who write to me feel compelled to say stuff like “I’m sure I’ve made many awful grammar mistakes in this e-mail” and “Please don’t judge me.” Adults — adults who read newspaper columns about grammar — mortified by their grammar inadequacies.

    So if Cleary lives on a planet where grammar education is so rigorous as to be oppressive, by all means, loosen the reins. Just don’t assume that such an educationally privileged environment represents the real world. It doesn’t.

    Author’s gravatar

    Here, here, Jeremy and June!

    For a fun way to learn grammar, check out this site:

    I have used the products for a quarter century with highly diverse learners and they are fabulous!

    Author’s gravatar

    Given the world we live in, I would argue that English teachers do children a disservice if they don’t warn them that there are people who will judge them if they split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, regardless of whether such rules have an inherent communicative advantage. (Training them in linguistics has the additional advantage of enabling them to lay the smackdown on such corrections.)

    Author’s gravatar

    Agreed. Teaching them also allows them to see the beauty and humor in work that does not always follow the rules, such as that of the good Dr. Seuss.

    Author’s gravatar

    Erin: I don’t remember any grammar instruction even in my freshman comp class. It was all about rhetoric and logic and different types of writing—persuasive writing, personal essays, research papers, and so on—and I loved it. Instead of just regurgitating points or BSing to meet my page count, I started thinking about writing as problem solving: what do I want to say, who am I saying it to, and how can I do so effectively? From what I can tell from skimming the Collins Writing Program site, it looks like pretty similar instruction.

    Jeremy: I agree that grammar can certainly be a set tools, but I don’t think that teaching it by itself will necessarily lead to better writing. I think you have to have other tools first—knowing how to identify your topic, how to structure a paragraph, and so on. In short, knowing how to make something coherent. After you get that foundation, knowing how to manipulate different kinds of sentences can help you tighten things up and polish the whole thing.

    June: My feeling is that it’s simultaneously too much and not enough. What little grammar instruction many students get is pointless and restrictive. It frustrates them and teaches them to hate writing. But I think that if we separate the two, then we can focus on grammar as a study of language rather than rote memorization of rules. I think a lot of people would love more grammar instruction, but it has to be the right kind.

    Braden: That’s a good point. I think any good grammar instruction should also cover points of debated or controversial usage, and not just from a “don’t do this” point of view. We need to teach students how to navigate those possible pitfalls successfully.

    Author’s gravatar

    When I teach grammar, we start with the “Verb Song.” Then we look at 16 pictures and find all the verbs we can find in each picture. We also do exercises that relate to the different kinds of verbs in the “Verb Song” (helping verbs, linking verbs, etc.) Then we learn the “Noun Song” and follow the same procedure. Then we learn the “Sentence Song.” We go back to the pictures and make a sentence for each picture using a noun and a verb. (Dogs bark. Children sing. Water drips. etc.) As we learn other parts of speech with songs (adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, direct objects) we make longer sentences.
    16 “Grammar Songs” teach the parts of speech and rules of punctuation and 72 Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes for building vocabulary. I developed them in the classroom over a 5-year period. My goal is to make learning easy, fun and permanent. It works.

    Author’s gravatar


    I agree that grammar can certainly be a set tools, but I don’t think that teaching it by itself will necessarily lead to better writing. I think you have to have other tools first—knowing how to identify your topic, how to structure a paragraph, and so on.

    From Jeremy’s description of himself as coming from ESL, I’d wager that what he means by grammar covers exactly those things— that is, that he’s talking of functional, as opposed to formal grammar, and most likely of systemic functional grammar, where notions such as theme or cohesion are central.

    Author’s gravatar

    Mean what you say and say what you mean.

    Grammar and syntax provide tools that enable us to avoid ambiguity and to ensure that we say what we mean.


    Author’s gravatar

    And how are we supposed to do that, may I ask?

    Author’s gravatar

    I went to an Eastern European country and did some intensive language courses involving using grammar appropriately, including nominative, genitive, dative, accusative etc. It was a slow process to gain a simple grasp of basic conversation, making sure I used the correct endings in sentences. I had a friend who became fluent in the language without doing any courses. Having asked a local why they used a particular ending for a word they responded with,”I don’t know, we just say it like that.” The reason my friend gave me for being able to speak fluently without doing a language course was, “I just lived there for six months and talked to people.”

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