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“Grammar?” Isn’t that the woman married to grandpa?

Ever since my undergraduate days at Binghamton University, I have considered myself a fairly strict grammarian. More accurately, my friends and acquaintances have labeled me as such; “Is this correct?” “Would you look at this for me?” “What’s wrong with this paper?” These are questions people have asked me since I decided to study English. It is fitting, then, that I now find myself, as most of my classmates are aware, an SAT prep teacher (tutor). I literally teach the rules and conventions of Standard Written English; just today I went over with a student: nominalzations, verb tense agreement, parallelism, superlatives and punctuation. This is why I find it ironic that I have completely lost sense of my definition of the word “grammar,” after reading this week’s essays!

In short summation: Patrick Hartwell’s “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” attempts to define this seemingly obvious word, “grammar;” Martha Kolln’s letter is a rebuff and a clarification of Hartwell’s essay (which itself seems to be a response to a previous essay of Kolln’s: “Closing the Books on Alchemy; here’s a link to that essay: You will need to enter your QC barcode to access JSTOR). Robert J. Connors’ essay, “Mechanical Correctness as a Focus in Composition Instruction” provides a historical context for understanding American grammar study and instruction, specifically in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Peter Elbow’s essay, “Inviting the Mother Tongue…” looks forward to one possible way of teaching our increasingly diverse twenty-first century students.

Perhaps the most useful starting point for our discussion on grammar and conventions is to start with Hartwell’s conclusion: “It is time that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy and let those theories guide our teaching”(127). Taking this premise one step further, I would borrow from Kolln’s letter, by agreeing with her: “rhetorical grammar has a place in our composition class, because of course grammar is there”(877); Hartwell responds, of course, stating that Kolln’s definition of grammar is his “grammar 5.” Grammar does have a place in our composition courses, just as it certainly has a place in our middle and high school classrooms. The question is: what is the place for teaching grammar?

Sadly, it falls to any teacher of English to teach this shifting concept of grammar. For a teacher like Professor Ferguson, for example, this instruction is less direct; the professor instructs through the written example of his own writing. He’s the PhD, so we refer to him as “the authority.” To each other, as English graduate students, we also learn from the example of reviewing one another’s online writings; we might smile and nod at a well-written comment, or we might gently shake our heads at a split infinitive or an improperly used comma. Most importantly, to our students, we are each of us the authority in their eyes; our students look to us to be the “go-to” people on grammatical instruction. Whether its John’s middle school students, Mishka or Megan’s high school students, or my after school SAT prep students, all of these pupils look to us as reference points.

The problem with this role is that none of us is infallible. No one has all of the rules of Standard American English grammar memorized! English is such a constantly shifting language that it is hard to point to one concrete rule book. Even if we begin to understand a definition of “grammar,” Elbow’s essay points out the difference applications for varying understandings of American English; African-American and Hispanic English are two such differing dialects. Where is our common consensus? Do we have one, as teachers of English? Hartwell and Colln are clearly opposed, or they think they are. What do you believe, my fellow graduate students? Can we come to some working definition of “grammar,” and should such a thing still be taught? Is this important to us, as teachers, and is it relevant to our students? Perhaps “grammar” is just the punchline in a bad pun referencing grandparents, after all.

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5 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    I think grammar is important at every level of schooling. I would have loved to take a class during my undergrad here at Queens College. During my high school student teaching experience was when students asked if grammar counted. Of course!!!! That’s when I would write my favorite example on the board; “let’s eat grandma” and “let’s eat, grandma” Most of them couldn’t respond with the correct answer when I asked what the difference was. They laughed after an explanation and said “ok, we get it now.” This is a simple and seemingly less important example but a mistake like that could possibly cost you a job or placement in a college program on a resume or application.

  2. mobrien says

    I think this comes back to the conversation we had at the very beginning of the semester when we were debating on whether or not grammar is important. This week, I found myself frustrated with how deficient students seem to be in grammar practices. Both Travis and I suggested that the solution might very well be in consistent writing assignments that students use as an opportunity to practice grammar realistically instead of in isolated mini-lessons and sentence deconstructions. I also agree with you, Rachel, that grammar mistakes, however small, can have larger consequences. In this respect, it is necessary for students to have a more isolated knowledge of grammar rules. I do not say this because misplaced punctuation or dangling modifiers are grounds for the immediate dismissal of an employee, but grammar mistakes can seriously skew the meaning of our statements. I also use your grandma example with my students and afterwards I say, “See, good grammar saves lives!” Similarly, this is an entertaining way for them to get to think about it, but the lesson is important. I do feel like we need to have students practicing grammar in their writing where they will be and should be using it most, but it is also important that they understand WHY the rules are there. In most cases, grammar is directly linked to meaning. If the grammar is wrong, the message may be lost.

    • Dana Choit says

      The suggestion of “real world” applications of grammar (as mentioned by both you and Travis) are in my opinion vital, if not necessary, to help students gain understanding and skill in the world of grammar. While having stand-alone lessons maybe useful, I think they should serve to build the basic structure that can be nurtured through practice. Much like Kolln writes, “we teach terminology in every other field…but not in their own language” (876) other classes like math and science use the more lectured lessons as a basis to be put in practice through problem solving and experimentation. We should do the same with grammar. Show students through the use of their own writing- mistakes and mechanical errors and proper usage- the practice of the conventions of writing and grammar.

      I loved your closing point that grammar creates meaning (I’ve also seen the “let’s eat grandma” example before) and when it is not utilized correctly the consequence is often a misconstrued message. This is something that can definitely and usually does come across in student writing- and they will be able to more clearly see the importance and practice of grammar through their writing. This also brings back the idea of the written word as a form of “speaking” with language.

  3. Victoria Fontana says

    Chris asks, “what is the place for teaching grammar?” Elbow might say that grammar has its place within the “language” that predominates the classroom, the “mother tongue. This would ensure safety in the classroom” and would allow for students to think freely instead of fearing and dreading writing. Language and dialect is deeply entrenched in the person, established within the community and conditioned and rooted from years of practice. It almost seems unfair to judge a student based on the notion of “good language,” admired by the intellectuals. These obvious deficiencies in language do need to be addresses. I question whether or not expecting pendant knowledge of and rote memorization of grammar rules, while reconditioning the given mother tongue.

  4. trevor11 says

    I can’t say its not important as much from a writers standpoint I ignore it. When I sit down to write for myself whether its a story, a poem, a comic script an anecdote, whatever I largely ignore the grammar and form until I feel I am done and I am ready to make it into its “final” -presentable, so to speak, form. As a teacher though I can’t ignore it, especially as an english teacher. Something like grammar though needs to be uniform, there is already enough gray area as it is with writing and literature and words as a creative tool. As much as it bothers me at least grammar is the same or at least should be. If there is one thing I have learned it’s that consistency for a student at any level, is a great thing, thus grammar should be consistent in terms of what it is. Sure we as educators can point out different things that we deem as important but overall we need to make sure grammar in Mr. Charles’ class it the same as it is in Mr. Grimms.

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