Week 25- Grammar? Huh! What Is It Good For?

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I’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates with people I respect on the issue of whether or not to teach grammar.  By and large, I think they think they’re making valid points.  For example, many begrudge the fact that we “Englishers” don’t have an intellectual body making rules for us about what is or is not linguistically kosher.  They feel that trying to nail down a rule is pointless.  “Remember,” they often quote, “every grammar rule can be broken.”

On the other side of the issue, we have people who will call you out because they can’t come to grips with the fact that we aren’t using Latin grammar rules anymore.  Honestly, there is no real reason to not use a preposition at the end of a sentence unless you happen to think that Latin and English are the same language.  Furthermore, the group listed above will tell you horror stories about parents, teachers, professors, and absolute frickin’ strangers (with a death-wish) who have beaten them down with Latin rules, making those young grammar-phobes run for cover.  I guess I have an abnormally thick skin because I simply never paid attention. (Except for that old lady at the mall… but we don’t like to talk about that.)

I think a bigger bugaboo is the fact that many people really don’t know grammar, and therefore don’t teach it.  Sure, most people know the parts of speech, but this is not the same as knowing grammar.  In fact, in some ways, knowing the parts of speech, to the exclusion of everything else, can create problems.  Teachers need to be fluent not in English (although that helps), but in the language of English.

Let me ask you this question:  Can you do math without using the language for it?  Sure you can.  You’re smart.  But isn’t it a whole lot harder?  Take 3+4=7, a fairly simple mathematical sentence.  Three plus four equals seven.  Even if you allow for the numbers, “plus” and “equal” take paragraphs to describe.

And so it goes for English.  Take this sentence: The cat ate my Cheerios.  Now, ask a student what the subject is.  If they only know the parts of speech, I bet they will pull the nouns and pronouns cat, Cheerios, and if he or she is mighty keen, my, as well.  Students need to know the structure of  a sentence.  Now the above sentence is very, very simple, but as with math, as the student grows and develops, the sentences and what they are trying to express will become more complex.  It is so, so much easier to point to a sentence and say, “Are you aware that you are missing a subject here?”  (In which case, some might say it isn’t a sentence.  For the purposes of not frustrating my students, I simplify to going from capital letter to end punctuation as “the sentence”.  This also keeps me from pointing at my student’s paper and say, “That’s wrong!” and all that it implies.) Then the student can say, “Yes, I’m using a fragment for emphasis. Ba-dow!” This is preferable to knowing that it sounds good, but not knowing why.  Ba-dow! indeed.  The only time it is wrong to write a fragment sentence is when you don’t know you are doing it.  When you don’t know you are doing it, you are not in control of your writing.

I once did a lesson with my students where they read Where the Wild Things Are, in which they had to say not the parts of speech but what the word was doing in the sentence.  I have to be honest here, I don’t even know the academic word for this.  (Scansion?  Grammar?  Dissection?  What is it called when you put it on little branches on a tree?  Shoot.  I forget.  See how hard it is when we don’t know the language?)  I wasn’t just looking for nouns, adjectives, and verbs (because without knowing what the word is doing in the sentence, this is actually impossible), but for subjects, verbs (predicates), direct objects, and clause markers. At that level of understanding, rules can’t be broken.  If the rule is that a word is the subject because it is what the sentence is about, then no matter what that word is, it’s the subject.  Period.  You can’t break that kind of rule.  That’s what I think of when I think of grammar.  What is this word doing that not only carries meaning by its definition but by how it supports the structure of the sentence?

My class likes to say, “We’re going science-ing!” Never mind that “science-ing” isn’t a word (and my grammar school teacher is probably spinning in her grave), think about the fact that “science-ing” has to be acting as a gerund in a direct object because it is the noun form (imaginary verb “science” plus -ing) that tells us what we are going to do.  It can’t be a subject complement because it isn’t telling us what we are equal to. (<– notice me ending with a preposition.  Ha!)   It can’t even be just a gerund.  Does knowing this make us better writers?  I say yes.

And the same goes for punctuation.  (Did you notice the fragment? Ba-dow!) What is that mark doing there?  Is it supporting your meaning?  Is it slowing your reader down so that meaning is clear?  Is it asking a question or making a claim?  Sure, you might follow Chicago, MLA, or your own company’s style guide, but really they don’t differ dramatically, and at least your students will know why.

Which leads us, I’m afraid, to the problem of teaching grammar.  There is a lot, a lot of crap out there.  I’m sure I am not the only person ever to toss away a grammar textbook because even the author didn’t seem to know what he or she was talking about.  Or how about those grammar worksheets?  I personally have never seen a student transfer what they gained from a worksheet into their own writing.  So, how to teach it?  Well, this is a long enough essay that I feel I should let you go.  However, I have had some success, and I will begin with that next time.

I’d love to hear from you.  What has been your experience teaching grammar, or being taught it, or not being taught it?  I think that my students are better writers because they can control what they really want to say.  And that’s what it’s good for.  Huh!

(By the way, I’m dyslexic which is not exactly why I married my editor, but it helps.  When he gets home, I’ll ask him to run his eye over my work.  Bless him.)

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