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The Slippery Slope of Defining Grammar Terms

When you discuss grammatical concepts in your writing class, you usually need some sort of meta-language to refer to the relevant items. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of minimizing jargon in the teaching of grammar. In the current post, I’m going to talk about a common problem that comes up when textbooks or teachers define grammatical terminology for their class.

Simply put, many grammar terms are defined in relation to other grammatical terms, which—in turn—are defined in relation to other terms. In practice, this means that when you try to define one term, you can find yourself sliding down a slippery slope where you have to define many more, which leaves many students overwhelmed.

Let’s illustrate this with a simple example: say that you want to define what a “complete sentence” is to your class. At first, this sounds easy. Traditional grammar and many textbooks would say that a complete sentence consists of a “subject” and a “predicate.”[1] Next, you’d have to define each of these terms. To define “subject,” you might have to define things like:

  • “noun”
  • “article”
  • “subject-verb agreement”
  • etc.

To define predicate, you might have to define:

  • “verb,”
  • “auxiliary verb,”
  • “direct object,”
  • “indirect object,”
  • etc.

The discussion might need to include discussion of how words can join together form a phrase, and how different phrases can in turn contain other phrases. You might even have to talk about how “conjunctions” can join two complete sentences together to form a larger sentence. And along the way, you’d have to answer any questions raised by students, when they attempt to apply these definitions to the messiness of actual sentences in English. Pretty soon, you’re practically writing your own treatise on the grammar of the English language!

Think about how much mental work it would take students to follow all this, understand it well, and apply it to their writing. It would take weeks of carefully sequenced and scaffolded teaching and practice work for the students. There is so much technical reasoning for students to follow that all but the most diligent will simply glaze over. When critics attack “traditional grammar instruction,” what they’re actually attacking—I think—is something like the kind of grammar teaching I’m describing above. And with good reason.

Although most writing teachers know it’s a poor use of class time to spend so much time covering grammar terminology, the issues I raise are still important because most teachers do need to have something to say about grammar. And when we want to make some point about grammar, it’s too easy for us to find ourselves sliding down the slippery where we define everything. When I was less experienced as a teacher, it happened to me. This semester, I have observed more than one conversations where well-meaning teachers ended up on a definition binge with students.

As I said before, one key to effective grammar teaching is minimizing the amount of jargon you present to the class. When you do use jargon, make sure it has an intuitive name, which can minimize the amount of time you spend giving a definition. If you have to give an explicit definition:

  1. Be parsimonious.
  2. Avoid complex technical definitions.
  3. Avoid definitions riddled with exceptions and stipulations.
  4. Avoid definitions which depend on students knowing lots of other terminology.

Often, the best definitions depend primarily on a carefully chosen set of example sentences that illustrates the concept. These examples minimize the need for highly technical definitions, and they work by appealing to students pre-existing competence with the language.


[1] This is not 100% accurate, but it’s one of the definitions that’s traditionally presented in many textbooks.