Home > Reviews of Books and Articles > Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar: 25 years later.

Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar: 25 years later.

Patrick Hartwell’s 1985 article Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar may well be the most cited article in grammar pedagogy in the teaching of writing. It’s been a quarter century since its publication, which is a good point to re-assess it. Overall, it’s a nuanced and thoughtful introduction to issues teachers need to consider when teaching grammar, but its sweeping, unwarranted conclusion needs to be re-considered.

Drawing a broad collection of research, Hartwell addresses proper place of teaching grammar in the English classroom. First he summarizes the endless skirmishes between those who believe grammar instruction is pointless and those who believe it’s crucial. Next he notes that both sides confound the different senses of the term grammar, so he defines 5 different types of grammar:

  1. The subconscious knowledge of natural language in the minds of all native speakers.
  2. The empirical research that formally describes grammar 1.
  3. Rules of linguistic etiquette.
  4. The instructive grammars used in schoolbooks.
  5. Descriptive grammars designed to enhance rhetorical style.

Hartwell’s precision is refreshing, and one of his most lasting contributions to the field has been to call our attention to the ambiguity underlying the term “grammar.” Too often, when English instructors make a pedagogical claim about “grammar,” they’re being imprecise about what sense they’re using the term. I once observed on a listserv how almost every discussion of grammar devolved into acrimony because the participants were each talking about something different. But a Christensen-style sentence-combining pedagogy has nothing in common with a pedagogy that requires students to memorize all the parts of speech and diagram sentences like in Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.

In practice, however, there’s no clear distinction between Hartwell’s grammars 3, 4, and 5. They’re all versions of prescriptive grammar. Many writing handbooks are a grab-bag of “rules” that appeal to all three. (Some even appeal to grammar 2, but any rule that must be explicitly taught to native speakers cannot be grammar 2.)

Teaching Grammars 2 and 4 is largely useless, Hartwell argues. He rightly criticizes grammar 4 because it is, in most instantiations, simplistic and wildly inaccurate when compared to the reality of grammar 1 or standard written English, and therefore its mechanistic instructions are useless except as heuristics. He also should emphasize, as Mike Rose has in Lives on The Boundary, that it breeds insecurity. As for Grammar 2, Hartwell correctly notes that that were it useful, then linguists would be our best writers. They aren’t. Hartwell’s principle argument is that grammar 2 rules are so complex that any writer who explicitly tries to reason through them will be hamstrung. He also cites experiments into teaching writers a simple grammar 2 for an artificial language, research which is at best tangentially relevant to natural language. Hartwell does suggest that carefully targeted instruction of grammar 2 may benefit some English language learners. What about Grammar 3? Hartwell doesn’t have much to say here.

As for Grammar 5, Hartwell rightly sees it as useful to some writers, though his conclusion isn’t founded on empirical data. He believes this grammar provides a common vocabulary with which some, but not all, writers and teachers can more consciously hone the style of their prose. The key, I believe, is that grammar 5 is best suited for advanced writers, who won’t misinterpret it as something more like grammar 3 or 4.

At the end of the article Hartwell reviews a decades-long history of research into the value of what he calls “formal grammar instruction.” Here, it’s worrisome that the same person who was earlier calling us to be very careful about what we mean by “grammar” has become so sloppy about what he’s referring to.

Hartwell’s sloppiness here allows him to end the essay with a sweeping condemnation of grammar teaching which is out of scale with the nuance of all the rest of his essay. Overall, Hartwell suggests that such instruction does not help students, and that it’s time for pedagogical researchers to turn their attention to more interesting areas of inquiry. He suggests that teachers use grammar as a way to blatantly assert power over their students.

Twenty-five years later, Hartwell’s closing words have proven to have an enduring influence. With a few small exceptions, composition scholarship has largely abandoned any sort of rigorous inquiry into how to teach grammar. To raise the issue, in some quarters, is to out yourself as an oppressor. This creates a shocking disconnect between pedagogical research and actual teachers’ practice. Independent of what the researchers are doing, most writing teachers are teaching some form of grammar in their classroom (and many are mandated to).

When someone like Hartwell says that teachers don’t need any scholarship into grammar instruction, are they assuming that students will learn all they need through 100% whole-language instruction? My reaction is to ask: what students are you teaching? Yes, that’s probably true for advanced students at selective universities, but what about community college students at the basic or developmental level? Has Hartwell ever gotten a student essay that’s two pages without a single period or ending punctuation? I have.

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  1. Terry
    November 20, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Punctuation is a matter of print code convention, not grammar in any of Hartwell’s five definitions. Was James Joyce or Gertrude Stein the student who submitted the paper youdescribe?

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