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Why Teach Grammar?

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Originally posted on ArrantPedantry.com:

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.