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  • To those who want more grammar in school: Get off my lawn!


Comments Jul 7, 2015 8:23 am

I agree that many of the grammatical rules taught in school are arbitrary. Missing from your analysis, though, is the fact that, rightly or wrongly, socio-economic class and "proper" grammar have always been linked. An aspiring lawyer won't be successful with a statement such as "me and him are working on the case." Those in power (or more accurately, those who teach the children of those in power) set standards. That said, teaching "the naming of parts" (flat-earth) and prescriptive grammar do tend to drain the life out of language. In my teaching, I tried to show (and critique) both approaches, but I also emphasized that breaking the rules carries risk.

Reply to at 8:23 am Jul 11, 2015 12:21 am

Couldn't agree more with many of the sentiments you expressed.  As a linguist, I too get frustrated by prescriptive grammar. However, I still believe that there still is a place for outmoded "grammar" rules in the classroom, if only because--as other commenters noted--society at large still considers these rules to be valuable.  Perhaps a good way for grammar to be explained in schools is really within the context of another language like Latin, which has highly structured grammar.  Then students could compare and contrast how Latin expresses certain ideas and how English does.  This at the very least might convey the variegated nature of grammar systems, while still giving students a grounding in basic grammatical principles that prescriptivists still cling to.  Perhaps a diachronic approach might be handy too, if only to show that grammar is capable of shifting.

Reply to at 12:21 am Jul 11, 2015 5:41 pm

The reason not to use "literally" when a statement is not literally true is that it creates a false statement.  If you feel the need for a spacer, or emphasis, I suggest ", like," which suggests that the statement is not literally true, and gives a better hint of the author's or speaker's meaning.

The rule about "shall" and "will" was invented by a bishop (really!) who was ashamed of how few grammatical rules English had compared to Latin and Classical Greek, and made that one up to help cover the deficit.  Most of the best writers in English stonily ignore him, and I follow their example.

In some types of writing it is best not to use first person singular pronouns.  In other types there is no reason not to.

There are stylistic reasons for preferring active to passive constructions, but the passive voice is perfectly legal, which is why it is taught in school.

Split infinitives are also perfectly legal, but there is a hazard in getting the two parts of the verb too far apart.  The listener may get tired of waiting.  Still, I thrilled to "To boldly go where no man has gone before!"

I understand why those trained in the grammar of highly inflected language would object to starting a sentence with a conjunction, or ending it with a preposition.  I also understand why even very good writers may nevertheless choose to do it.  Another irrelevancy taken from classical antiquity is that we can't use a noun to modify another noun.  In the Germanic languages we do it all the time.

Ignoring the difference between "may" and "might" makes it impossible to distinguish between what may be true and what is known to be false, which is often important.

Reply to at 5:41 pm Jul 11, 2015 5:56 pm

You write: "Oh, and I know you didn’t ask, but English is not in decline, texting and tweets are not bad for our moral or intellectual health..."

Why say this and not defend your positions? Seems to defeat the main  point of your article. Disappointing.

Reply to at 5:56 pm Jul 11, 2015 7:43 pm

Grammar and good usage are for clarity and effectiveness. Anything can be presented like a bag of tricks, or can be taught in engaging ways. We need to be well equipped, in language, so we have the tools of expression at the ready. Understanding parts of speech, tense, case and number does not have to be dull or difficult. As Professor Henry Higgins said of the English in "My Fair Lady," "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him." That's true of us Americans, too. Each person's written and spoken American English opens or closes vocational and social doors, narrows or broadens opportunities.

Reply to at 7:43 pm Jul 12, 2015 2:23 am

You said an analytical approach to grammar had no practical value, but you obviously believe otherwise. As do I. 

I compare understandkng how we speak to mental gymnastics. We learn to better listen to people and analyze what they are  saying and how they are arguing. Learning grammar also helps foreigners understand the specificity and nuances of a language. 

Grammar is fascinating! 

Reply to at 2:23 am