Salvaging Grammar Instruction

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69 Responses

  1. Patrick Cahalan says:

    It’s all meta, dude.

    It’s all meta.Report

  2. E.C. Gach says:

    “The study of grammar, especially diagramming, makes one conscious of this structure and how it frames thought and understanding. These are things worth knowing.”

    Most certainly. Perhaps introducing some Aristotle or other classical philosophy to address the basics of language, i.e. subjects and predicates, and how we string references and conceptions together might give a helpful bird’s eye view on the whole ordeal. It certainly would have helped me.

    Then there’s the problem of writing the way one speaks. I don’t think I’m alone in how I say everything as I’m writing it (in my head), but perhaps I am. Eitherway, I’d be surprised if putting a greater emphasis on gramtical speech wouldn’t go a long way toward more gramatical writing.

    Listen to a Presidential debate and it’s no wonder we have a grammar problem in this country.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      I’d be surprised if putting a greater emphasis on gramtical speech wouldn’t go a long way toward more gramatical writing.

      Would you take a more proactive or reactive approach to this? I correct my son’s spoken grammatical mishaps, but admittedly I don’t have him practice speaking grammatically correct constructions. Maybe I should.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    The majority of other folks might (and probably do) learn differently than I do… but I’ll give my experience because I think it may illuminate as much as give me an opportunity to tell a story.

    Everything I did in much of elementary, middle, and high school was done by rote. There may be an exception or two (Winesburg, Ohio) but, for the most part, I gave the answers to the questions based on the material. “What does Ishmael’s grabbing the floating coffin in the ocean symbolize?” “This symbolizes blah blah blah blah” and I got my B+ and I was outta there.

    One day I was walking down the street and I understood what Ishmael was doing. I understood what Melville had painted.

    The universe opened before me and I saw the pods swimming mating birthing dying in a gyre like I was looking at Doré’s White Rose but instead of angels they were whales.

    This was more than 10 years after I had given that book back to my teacher at the end of the section.

    The day before, had you asked me, I would have told you that I learned nothing.Report

  4. Kimmi says:

    Don’t be Andy Rooney.
    If you’re going to teach grammer, have fun — but I think it’s more fun to learn multiple grammars at once. And don’t tell me that’s not for English class!
    How can you expect someone to learn without something to compare it to? Grammar’s fun, in no small part because of how different it is from place to place.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    It occurs to me that if I were to have written Freddie’s post, I’d very pointedly be accused of writing off the poor. Probably of racism too.

    So I’m just going to say he’s 100% wrong and hope for the best.Report

  6. wardsmith says:

    Ah Warriner’s textbook. Remember it well. Unfortunately years ago I gave my copy (well worn) to a Chinese friend to help him with his English. Don’t know if it helped or not but I miss that little red book (irony intended).

    Read almost every one of Faulkner’s books in high school. For fun, I turned in a “paper” wherein I diagrammed ONE of Faulkner’s sentences (bonus points if you can guess which book). Took 4 sheets of paper taped together. Still grammatically correct although trying to write like him (beautiful long meandering sentences) got me yelled at by virtually everybody. You’ll note I try to avoid that hereabouts. 😉Report

    • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

      writing long sentences is a art that takes both concise meaning and a flow like a stream. … this is not a good example (the flow like a stream doesn’t flow well).Report

      • MFarmer in reply to Kimmi says:

        Although I hardly ever write long sentences, sometimes, when I have a lot on my mind, like when I’m in the middle of a debate online and the other person has made several points I want to address, I’ll write long sentences so that I don’t break the flow of my thoughts, even though it might be best to break up the sentence into several shorter sentences seeing as how some people prefer to read shorter sentences and given the fact that nowadays many people don’t have the patience for complex sentences, but I guess either way is fine, if you ask me, which you weren’t, but I’m responding anyway, because not everyone has a short attention span, and long sentences, even though some don’t like them, are necessary for comprehensive responses and nuance, at least I think so, especially when qualifications are called for, so, yes, I do write long sentences, although I admit I could be mistaken and that shorter sentences might be more suitable.Report

        • wardsmith in reply to MFarmer says:

          Excellently done Mr. Farmer and at 167 words you’re exactly ten words longer than Faulkner’s intro sentence in the book heretofore alluded to above (this is clue #2)

          “There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like chidren’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the binding and dreamy and victorious dust.”Report

          • MFarmer in reply to wardsmith says:

            A bit of prose improvement compared to mine.

            Have you read Pynchon? Now, he constructed some sentences. Gravity’s Rainbow is an acid trip of long sentences – if you can call them sentencesReport

            • wardsmith in reply to MFarmer says:

              Funny how memes work isn’t it? Jaybird mentions Melville, which with grammar makes me think of Faulkner and now you mention Pynchon, whose review in the NYT mentions – Melville and Faulkner. “Gravity’s Rainbow” is longer, darker and more difficult than his first two books; in fact it is the longest, most difficult and most ambitious novel to appear here since Nabokov’s “Ada” four years ago; its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville and Faulkner.

              And now the punchline for those who didn’t Google it, Absalom, Absalom.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to wardsmith says:

                Kyle mentioned it first. He nudged something that had been dozing in my brain.

                Maybe that’s how they work. Something wakes up enough to roll over and kicks whatever is next to it.

                Maybe we can do something with Nabokov next.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to wardsmith says:

      The Bear? No, that would have taken 4 reams of paper.

      Steven Brust’s Parrfi books are another example, but that’s intended to be amusingly verbose (the best bit being the page-long sentence in praise of brevity.)Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to wardsmith says:

      I liked Warriners, but it had almost no review, so I had to supplement it with some homemade worksheets.Report

  7. DensityDuck says:

    Both you and Freddie end up advocating “learn by rote” for grammar structure.

    Which, on the one hand, yay! The sentences and essays that the students write match the expected form!

    On the other hand, are they writing or are they just doing the academic equivalent of Mad Libs?Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    I would also say that learning Ancient Greek in college probably taught me more about Formal English Grammar than my entire high school career.

    I remember a handful of Greek words in the front of my brain and can read it aloud (without understanding more than 10% of it) if I sit quietly… but I know for a fact that that improved my English mastery far more than any writing/English class that I took in my academic career.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

      Four years of high school Latin did the same, pretty much.

      I don’t remember hardly any of it, but the roots are buried in there. It’s all meta, dude.Report

  9. Kolohe says:

    English grammar education would be notably improved if the language itself were to use more frequently the subjunctive mood.Report

  10. Christopher Carr says:

    Kyle, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I, as an English teacher like you, enjoy diagramming sentences. It’s like masturbation for us.

    Freddie is indeed forthright. I disagree with or want to qualify almost everything he writes, yet I continue to lurk at his digs for unknown reasons.

    Grammar may not help any one human understand his or her language, but it does, however, help humans understand *language*, if that makes sense.

    As a corollary to that, I’ll offer my Latin SAT II scores. So, I scored a 580 on the Latin SAT II, which is not good, like the equivalent of a novice who’s good at bullshitting, despite having taken Latin in middle school and being able to read Virgil and Catullus more or less fluently at the time as part of coursework. This (maybe I rationalize to myself) is because who the fuck cares about chiasmus and litotes?

    “Grammar is the structure in which people think and by which they understand reality” – as a Wittgensteinian, I disagree. Grammar is whatever general, perceptible patterns occur from regular practice in a particular language. I may not think in nouns and verbs, since communication is by definition whatever comes out. Maybe inside my head I think a “dog” is a shmogledihoff and “run” is a morushparf. It doesn’t matter if what comes out is consistent with conventional practice.

    Ultimately, as a language teacher, I believe keeping things unmeta as possible is best (unless you’re teaching meta; i.e. philosophy, linguistics, etc.) because if (and there are) there are people who actually don’t understand words as nouns and verbs but understand them as shmogledihoffs and morushparfs, then these people won’t get totally creamed by sentence diagrammification.Report

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Christopher. I do understand what you mean by saying that diagramming helps one understand language. My wife did most of her diagramming when studying Latin.

      My definition of grammar isn’t so much a definition as an observation of how grammar, as a pattern already at play, frames thought and understanding. This framing will differ from person to person, even within the same language, due to the degree to which thought and understanding are “grammatical.”Report

  11. stuhlmann says:

    I learned to diagram sentences in grade school, in 6th or 7th grade. (Note: I went to a Catholic grade school, offering grades 1-8). Since then I have never encountered this technique nor have I ever heard of anyone else learning it. I came to believe that diagramming was technique unique to nuns.Report