Time was when grammar was king in the public schools. It didn’t seem to matter whether a student’s writing was interesting but whether it was correct. Then came the “process writing movement” and (in the lower grades) the “creative spelling movement.” The design was to unlock the writing energies that were being stifled by an overemphasis on rules. Winston Churchill may have claimed that diagramming sentences at Eton provided the foundation for his great speeches, but in the 1970’s many teachers found themselves not with Churchills but with students paralyzed by writer’s bloc.
Flash ahead a generation or two and you will find little emphasis placed on grammar in North American schools (with the exception of foreign language instruction). Not having had grammar pounded into them as students, young teachers no longer think in these terms. In the following column Jason Blake, a Canadian teaching English in Slovenia, discusses his mixed feelings about this. Please let us know about your own stories and your reactions to this development.
By Jason Blake, University of Ljubljana, Department of English
For me, the line of the 2008 presidential race went to John McCain: “I’m past the age when I can claim the noun ‘kid,’ no matter what adjective precedes it…” This is not a political post, so I’ll skip the rest of McCain’s quip. The words just sounded so old-fashioned, almost quaint.
That noun and adjective were dropped so smoothly immediately showed McCain to be of a different era, an era in which they taught grammar at school. A younger politician that used terms like this would sound affected, or like a geeky linguist. Obama’s advisors surely tell him, “Never, ever mention the dative case in a State of the Union address!” Actually, it’s possible that not-yet-fifty Obama would have to search for the grammatical terms to describe whereof he speaketh. Formal school grammar was phased out years ago in most of North America.
If you have questions about the do’s and don’ts of comma placement before a relative clause, bounce it off any pensioner with at least a grade school education. My mother, a primary school teacher, once floored me with the line: “Kids don’t have to parse anymore, and that’s a problem!” She was out of the room before I could ask for clarifications, so I had to run to the dictionary.
I know that in many parts of the English world there has been a back-to-basics approach to schooling, including formal grammar, perhaps even parsing. But unfortunately, because two or more generations of English teachers had little instruction in formal grammar, younger teachers are behind the pedagogical eight-ball. Obviously a twenty-five year old English teacher can talk adverbs and adjectives, but I argue that it requires a little more effort to transmit knowledge you’ve learned after grade twelve.
Here’s my reasoning: we are sponges for knowledge during the school years. What we learn at an early age is rooted deeply and ranges from batting averages, to bad song lyrics, to reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. Think of Pluto, which used to be the last planet in “Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Upright Nearly Perpendicular.” At some level I know Pluto is no longer a planet. I read it in the New York Times, I think. And yet I cannot chop the ex-planet, even if “Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Upright…Nearly” would jingle just as well.
It’s the same with grammatical terms. When my Slovenian students ask me about the correctness of an utterance, they do so patiently, like the cops on TV trying to get the goods out of a dim-witted eyewitness. I remain the native speaker and my judgment is often respected, so they will tolerate my grammatical slowness. If a student asks why?, I still have to fumble for terms they’ve all been learning since grade school. (Twice, actually – Slovenian kids learn both the Latinate and the domestic versions of nominative/imenovalnik, accusative/tožilnik, dative/I have no clue…). They are always amazed a North American English major can steer clear of grammar class.
When I was teaching a first-year German course way-back-when at the University of Toronto, my class shocked me by claiming that English does not have grammatical cases. Thirty-two especially bright and enthusiastic students had made it through high school without confronting the terms nominative and accusative.
“I see you,” I said. “Can you say that in English?”
“You see I. Can you say that?”
“Well, ‘I’ is nominative, ‘me’ is accusative. Just like ich and mich in German.”
They looked like they thought I was hoodwinking them somehow. The fact that I knew this seemed slightly worrying to them (I was younger than a few of the students).
Shifting away from sentence parsing (hunting for the subject, the predicate, etc.) in English class does not mean that we have become less grammatical speakers. The logic, I think, was that verb charts and the like put a damper on creativity. Better to spend the time reading and writing. Besides, as Noam Chomsky writes, it doesn’t make that much of a difference: “In certain fundamental respects we do not really learn language; rather grammar grows in the mind.” Formal grammar be hanged, we’re going to learn to do things with our native language.
If phrases like “he saw you and I” are common these days, it’s not simply because formal grammar was banished from the classroom. My hunch, as a non-linguist, is that “he saw you and I” is a misuse of the rule of thumb that “and I” is always preferable because it sounds better, more polite. Didn’t every grade school teacher intone, “not me and my friend” but “my friend and I”? No native speaker (and for that matter, no non-native speaker with a words-per-minute rate in the double digits) would take the time to think “I follows and, which follows you, which is a direct object, even if it’s a person. Since and doesn’t change the grammatical case, I should also be in the same case, though the grammatical case of you is not marked because it’s not inflected…” If you start thinking too much about rules, you’re tongue-tied.
On rare occasions, grammatical terminology confuses the reader because the writer gets it wrong. In an article I read recently examining recent South African writing, a reviewer noted that Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow is “written in the second person.” I was puzzled at how Mpe could write an entire novel using only “you.” Then I realized the reviewer should have said “first person plural.” People over fifty and people who have suffered through French or Spanish verb charts know that.
I thought of writing to the magazine to point this blunder out, but how to do so without sounding like a dull grammarian? Even back in 1740, according to my Oxford English Dictionary, one could read: “The denomination grammarian is, like that of critic, now frequently used as a term of reproach; a mere grammarian; a dry, plodding grammarian, etc.” If I wrote something, I would be a critic and a grammarian, merely stroking a strange part of my ego.
Richard Wright’s novel The Age of Longing briefly takes up the cause of grammar. The protagonist receives a letter from a minister after the death of his mother, a letter that includes the line: “Between you and I, Mr. Wheeler, I did not have the opportunity to know your mother very well.”
Mr. Wheeler sees red: “I have inherited, no doubt from my mother, a critical disposition; over the years it has been useful in my vocation as book editor, though it has caused some distress in my life and certainly in the lives of who have had to share time and space with me. Still, between you and I? You would think that a man of the cloth with a university education would have a better grasp of fundamental grammar.”
This is a professional nitpicker at work. His mother has just died, and he’s obsessed about grammatical case?
In a 1990 essay titled “Lee Could Not Have Spoken,” novelist David Adams Richards complains about the “educated, unthinking, literal-minded,” which is easy enough to link to the grammar teacher’s error-quest. Without Richards’ five pages of argument surrounding it, the phrase is admittedly vague. I take “unthinking” to mean a rigid adherence to a few basic, often ideological, concepts. In his fiction and non-fiction alike, Richards coolly skewers those who leave college with a dull set of pre-conceived and thus predictable viewpoints (for example, he shows the hypocrisy of meat-eating liberals like me who show no understanding for hunters; in God Is.: My Search for Faith in a Secular World, he examines, among other things, intellectuals’ intolerance toward faith even as they spout the need for acceptance of all). The “literal-minded” have a knack for seeking out details, especially mistakes, at the expense of soul, spirituality, perhaps even beauty.
As a teacher who spends much of his time correcting grammatical mistakes, I feel and fear that at least part of Richards’ essay is a warning to me:
There are always ways in which being stingily correct will reduce everyone else to our level. We must get a great deal of pleasure out of it.
A[n academic] I know sat in a poet’s den one day and picked out the three or four spelling mistakes in his book of verse. She said nothing else about the book.
This is feedback of the worst variety because it says not a word about the substance of the work. In some ways it is even worse than the single-line “Do it better!” comment a high school friend once received after handing in an essay. It is worse because it has the veneer of helpful advice (what Richards calls the odious “method of convenient empathy”). This is and is not doing one’s job as critic, commentator or teacher.
Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” was not written for teachers, but we pedagogues should remember the concluding couplet when tempted to provide only “convenient empathy”:
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
I don’t think Auden is promoting false flattery here, but I do think these lines could be applied to nitpicking and pedantry. Why is it that most of us are quicker to point out mistakes? In matters grammatical, sometimes it’s best to remain silent. To quote Robin, “The point is to teach the student how to use language powerfully. Not [just!] to nitpick grammatical mistakes.” Even when dealing with English as a foreign language. Thankfully, I’ve never received a paper containing nothing praiseworthy.
Jason Blake, a regular contributor to this website, is the author of Canadian Hockey Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2010).