Home > Pedagogical Theory > The Canon of Grammatical Errors, and How it Blinds Teachers

The Canon of Grammatical Errors, and How it Blinds Teachers

The teaching of grammar centers on a canon of grammatical errors, which shapes the way it is taught in important ways that teachers often overlook. In this post, I’m going to define this canon, point out what it makes us overlook, and illustrate it through an example from student writing.

What do I mean by “canon”? In the study of literature, “the canon” consists of the “great works” that are traditionally considered worthy of study. For instance, you’d have:

  • Shakespeare
  • Hemingway
  • Steinbeck
  • etc…

With grammatical errors, the canon consists of a set of established errors that are traditionally covered in handbooks and teaching lessons:

  • subject-verb agreement
  • pronoun reference
  • comma-splice
  • etc…

Of course, the list above illustrates just a small sample. We could add dozens of errors to this, including the canon of errors for ESL students. Nonetheless, it’s striking how often the same canonical concepts are covered over and over in handbooks and textbooks (and lesson plans). If you don’t believe me, go to your local bookstore and see for yourself.

How does this affect our teaching? The canon delimits the range of grammatical errors considered worthy of study. Many handbooks are organized around lists of these errors. Most teachers base their grammar instruction around errors within the canon, and point them out as such when they comment on students’ writing. Grammatical errors that fall outside the canon cannot be easily categorized, and are thus deemed unimportant or overlooked. Teachers lack the language to talk about them, so students are left to grope through these issues on their own.

Underlying the canon we find ethnocentrism. Just as the canon of Literature has been attacked for focusing too heavily on the work of dead, white, men of European descent, the canon of grammatical errors can be attacked for focusing too heavily on the grammatical errors most common to middle-class students who are native speakers of English and who have strong backgrounds reading and writing formal written English. It misses many of the errors found in the writing of ESL students, generation 1.5 students, and students whose writing is closely modeled on their patterns of speech.

Let me give an example of a common grammatical error that the canon makes us overlook. I frequently notice errors in the writing of my students who come from ESL backgrounds that look like this:

 1. “…it is easy for parents to avoid their children to eat fast food…”

A native speaker would have expressed the same sentiment as:

 2. “…it is easy for parents to prevent their children from eating fast food…”

As teachers, we know that #1 contains an error, but the canon provides us no straightforward way to categorize it. We might circle it and tell students to “fix the grammar,” but we have no specific way to explain it to students. So we don’t. Strong students who are native speakers know how to fix it. Many others have no good way to figure it out.

To understand the nature of the error in #1, we need a quick lesson in linguistics: many verbs allow certain types of clausal complements, while disallowing others. In the prototypical case, which most ESL students learn early in their studies, verbs such as “know,” “say,” and “think” can be followed by a (finite) clausal complements that begins with “that”:

3. I know/said/think that it’s a nice day.

Some verbs (“want,” “need,” “ask,” “say”) can be followed by clausal complements that are infinitives:

4. I want/need/asked/said to go home.

Things quickly get more complex. Many of these same verbs also allow a noun phrase to intervene between the verb and the infinitive:

 5. I want/need/asked the boys to go home.

 Schematically, the clausal complement in #5 looks like this:

6. … [noun phrase]    to VERB …

And some verbs (“prevent,” “ban,” “stop”), which can express a kind of negation over their clausal complement, go with an even more complex structure:

7. I prevented/banned/stopped the kids from eating fast food.

Schematically, the clausal complement in #7 looks like this:

8. … [noun phrase]    from    GERUND …

Given that the clausal complement in #8 has three discrete parts, its grammatically complexity far exceeds that of a clause that starts with “that,” which is a reason that ESL students have all sorts of trouble with them.

With this in mind, we can better understand the error in #1. Actually, the sentence contains two errors. First (and less interestingly), the student chose the wrong verb—“avoid” rather than “prevent.” Second, and more crucially, the student tried to follow the verb with an infinitival complement, even though neither “avoid” nor “prevent” allow such a complement.

Right now, the canon provides no label for this sort of error, even though many ESL students struggle with it. More broadly, ESL students tend to struggle with choosing the correct type of clausal complement for lots of other types of verbs. Students who make these sorts of errors repeatedly would benefit from being explicitly taught which verbs take which kinds of clausal complements. If one pattern of grammatical error predominates in a student’s writing, they benefit from targeted and explicit instruction on how to address it. Once students learn the pattern, they can begin to generalize from it.

If I had more space, I could discuss all sorts of other grammatical errors that are ignored by the canon and that are specific to the writing of generation 1.5 students and students whose writing is modeled on their patterns of speech. I could also discuss a parallel canon of grammatical terminology, and what it prevents us from talking about. I might do that in a future post, but for now, I don’t want to belabor the issue. I just want to make the point that we need to be aware of the ways in which the canon of grammatical errors covertly shapes how we teach.

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  1. Julie
    December 16, 2012 at 5:34 am

    Very interesting! It is crucial for students to be corrected on their grammar by their teachers. How else will they learn before entering the working world??

  2. January 3, 2013 at 6:48 am

    Interesting point on the ESL students.

  3. Rebekah Eckert
    March 14, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Useful ideas! Thanks.

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