Back in the Day, We Parsed Sentences


How many mistakes can you catch?

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).

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  1. Barbara
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    Oh Robin, the memories! As I remember it, my entire 4th grade instruction in “language” (as it was called) consisted of learning how to diagram sentences: for homework and at the chalk board before God and everyone! (We also had daily penmanship exercises but that’s another story.) I ultimately went on to Latin and French and a bit of Greek. Knowing a bit about grammatical structure helped me sort out other grammars. My younger (b y 7 years) sisters got none of that. Her first intro to grammar came in Spanish class. Cases and tenses drove her nuts because she didn’t have a comparable frame of reference in English.

    Several years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, National Public Radio did a piece on new legislation in Massachusetts that mandated state testing for teachers before they could get certification to teach in Massachusetts schools. The pass rate was disappointing but critics argued the test was “unfair”. As an example, he cited a question that asked these potential elementary school teachers to define “preposition”. I almost drove off the road. I think the issue is that without a grammatical framework, we’re left with “what sounds right” and that’s a slippery standard. The thing that clangs in my ear is the confusion of adjectives and adverbs. But I’m more tolerant of nouns transmuting into verbs since a linguist explained that English has evolved that way from its roots.

  2. farida
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I was a bit dissapointed by the conclusion of this column. Jason Blake started off pointing out very convincingly the importance of grammar and yet he ended his column by concluding that to correct a student’s grammar is to nit-pick or to focus on mistakes rather than the substance of the work. Surely one can do both, correct grammar and judge the substance of the work.

    I am always frustrated by my own lack of knowledge of English grammar and I place the blame on my own meagre efforts to learn grammar while at school and also on the reduced presence of English grammar lessons in the curriculum as I went through school. I wish it was insisted upon more in schools everywhere.

    I am not in a position to argue Noam Chomsky’s statement. But surely “grammar’s growth” in one’s mind is very dependent on how well one LEARNS a language. I cannot imagine French grammar taking root in my mind and growing itself without some serious effort on my part to learn the language. In short, I didn’t understand that statement by Chomsky.

    What’s wrong with seeking out detail? Without detail we would drown in generalisation. There a phrase in common usage “God is in the detail/s” and I subscribe to that view. Without language there is no work to judge or critique. And so the language itself must be honored.

    As for beauty, it’s in the details. The stronger one’s foundation of grammar is and the wider the frame of reference, the better the writing will be as well.

    I remember a British writer and critic,Will Self, saying one of Toni Morrison’s work was diminished because her writing was “too beautiful”. I was outraged.

    I am not saying to write well one has to have perfect grammar nor am I saying language should not change. Language should change and indeed so much beauty can be found in the different ways people use words or play with grammatical forms. But as Barbara says, “without a grammatical framework, we’re left with “what sounds right” and that’s a slippery standard.”

    I had to look up the word “parsing” and I find it exists in the computing world as well. As I understand it, to parse, is in a sense to perform a kind of detailed analysis. I feel that most of us would be better off if we were taught to analyse language better and think about the ways we use words and why we use the particualr words we do.

    I think the better we understand language and its constructs, the better we use it. And I agree with Jason Blake that the earlier these grammar lessons are taught, the better they will take root in a person’s mind.

    Words matter. The ways in which we use them to construct ideas, communicate with each other, tell stories etc matters. How we “language” things matters. Grammar matters.

    In the digital world, especially among young people, sentences and speech are increasingly abbreviated, grammar is one of the biggest casualties of this process, and unfortunately the process of thinking seems to be increasingly abbreviated as well. This is true not just of the English language but all languages.

    I must add that I am going to do some very much needed personal research on the proper use of commas, when to use double or single quotation marks, and the semi-colon….aah the semi-colon. I can only imagine the number of grammatical errors in my post here!

    Every now and then there are stories in the media about all the languages in the world that are dying, and while I’m sure English will be around for many many years to come, the process of its demise or transformation is not always a thing of beauty.

  3. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    You make a lot of good points here, Jason (and Barbara), and you raise a number of issues that cut both ways. We should certainly steer clear of becoming nit-picking pedants, but aren’t those frustrated fault-finders driven to their penchant by a constant avalanche of nits to pick? And it’s not exactly a case of obsessing about details when you read a piece of writing so full of surface errors that you are distracted completely from focusing on the meaning. And we can’t ignore the fact that since no rational thinking exists without language, the expression of a thought IS the thought–therefore, sloppy language is sloppy thinking; an incoherent sentence is an incoherent thought.

    On the other hand, many people who know their way around a grammar book certainly do prioritize the cursing of the darkness over the lighting of candles. Maybe teachers should try to cultivate towards their students’ writing the feeling of amused indulgence we experience when we read something such as the Journals of Lewis and Clark, a work full of hilariously bizarre misspellings and colorful solecisms that makes for engaging reading, often because of its wildly “creative” expressions.

    One topic that you barely touch on in your discussion is the reading factor. It might not have been so bad to phase out an intense concentration on the rules of grammar in our classrooms, if students could be counted on to do a lot of reading instead. It is by the continual reading of good writing that “grammar grows in our mind,” such that the proper use of language simply falls into place without any concentration on rules. Without either good grammar instruction or a good reading progam, however, we find ourselves with impaired language abilities and, concomitantly, impaired thinking.

  4. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Farida, I think you make good observations as well. Your comment had not yet appeared on the website when I posted my own reaction, and I didn’t want to omit mentioning your posting along with the others.

  5. Jason Blake
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Doing diagrams “at the chalk board before God and everyone” sounds horrifying – and I thought the spelling bee could be tough on kids! Probably good for the soul, like cod liver oil and ice-cold showers.

    I didn’t intend a false dichotomy at the end, though I did do a good job of implying we correct EITHER grammar OR content. Mea culpa. (If you made grammatical errors, I didn’t see them. I was too busy gobbling up the insightful comments.)

    The nit-picking I was thinking about, sorry, about which I was thinking… was focussing too much on things like “the media are” versus “the media is,” “between John, Sarah, and Sally” versus “among John, Sarah, and Sally” (and arguing over the comma before “Sally”), etc. Especially for second language learners – who are only going to absorb a few structures at a time – a sea of red can crush motivation. The art (not yet mastered by me) is gauging which structures or mistakes to focus on at a given level. To be clear, “You was…” or “We go-ded” should be put right at any level.

    An anecdote; make of it what you will: a few years ago I was sitting with three professors from North America.
    “Jason, what’s it like teaching in Slovenia?”
    “Great. The only drag is that occasionally I have to stop correcting essay content to correct grammar – something you three obviously don’t have to do.”
    All three rolled their eyes, and I think two wanted to hit me for my naivety.

  6. Francisco
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed reading everyone’s posts…all things considered. Perhaps, the “English” language (this vibrant and dynamic thing) can be studied scientifically so as to discover a model whereby listeners of the English language would not have a difficult time parsing it.

    I actually caught DF Wallace in one or two interviews where he tells the interviewer: (paraphrasing) “I have a hard time parsing your question….”

  7. Robin Bates
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Here are two extra thoughts to add to this rich conversation.

    1. In her groundbreaking book Errors and Expectations, rhetorician Mina Shaughnessy showed that some grammar problems automatically disappear in subsequent drafts when students (and writers generally) figure out what they’re trying to say. Thus early intervention from the teacher can be counterproductive. Shaughnessy’s insight was to show how certain grammatical mistakes are tied to content to a greater extent than we realized.

    I tell my students that grammatical correctness is like painting the trim in the house. It doesn’t matter how solidly the mansion is built. All a new buyer will see is the bad paint job. (I also say it’s like walking into an interview with your zipper open. It doesn’t matter that you are an amazing person–you will be judged on that detail.) But you don’t want to be painting the trim when you’re in the midst of installing sheetrock.

    2. I was listening to NPR talk radio a couple of months back to a discussion about whether the internet is detrimental to writing skills. There were arguments on both sides, but one interesting observation was that, when internet writers make mistakes, there are often “grammar Nazis” who call them out–with the effect (this one expert contended) that people learn grammar under the gun. If you want to be taken seriously, you’d better learn when to use the nominative case and when to use the objective. This individual also pointed out that the internet is getting many people to write more than they used to.


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