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Grammar Terminology and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment

For literacy educators, E.D. Hirsch’s dubious yet influential Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) is a must-read—partly because Hirsch often gets caricatured in graduate seminars as the stand-in for what Paolo Friere calls the “banking method” of education. But Hirsch also indirectly helps explain a key problem teachers encounter when we teach about grammar and mechanics, a problem which—in this post—I will focus on.

Yes, everything you'll ever need to know, all in one book!

Yes, everything you’ll ever need to know, all in one book! And as a bonus: the cure to our benighted educational system!

Hirsch’s thesis holds that the K-12 educational system leaves students with a low level of literacy because it over-emphasizes teaching general skills (word decoding, summarizing, or making text-to-self connections), and it under-emphasizes the importance of familiarizing students with the broad range of background knowledge shared by highly literate Americans; Johnny can’t read, according to Hirch, because he doesn’t understand our cultural symbols.

It’s hardly controversial that background knowledge helps readers more deeply understand a text. What English teacher hasn’t seen a class of students overlook crucial textual allusions to things that most teenagers know nothing about?—things like the filibusters, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jim Crow. That’s why reading teachers, as part of a venerable pre-reading activity, build and activate students’ schemata.

But Hirsch’s undoing stems from the way the book exemplifies a genre that today seems all too familiar. This genre:

1. starts from the premise that the K-12 education system is failing.

2. focuses not on what students can do, but on what they can’t.

3. takes a glib approach to examining competing pedagogies.

4. presents the author’s prescriptions as a panacea.

When it comes to our sentence-level pedagogies, how are Hirsch’s ideas relevant? He infamously ends his book with a 65-page list of items titled “What Literate Americans Know” —everything from “abominable snowman” (152) to “Zionism” (215). Introducing the list, Hirsch professes that he’s describing and not prescribing, but his list betrays his prejudices, since it includes “a rather full listing of grammatical and rhetorical terms because students and teachers will find them useful for discussing English grammar and style” (146). (Hirsh holds a Ph.D. in English)

Here Hirsch implies that college writing teachers cannot assume all students enter college knowing common grammar terminology. He’s right. But this doesn’t mean our high schools are failing. It’s just an objective fact about our students.

A comparison: I once taught in a community college that served high schools dominated by whole-language instruction. In such contexts, many of my students sat mystified when I first mentioned terms like subject, verb, and preposition. Over time, I learned to presuppose that only one group of students was familiar with common grammatical terms—those with coursework in ESL.  That was in California. Now I’m in Illinois, and things are different: my current writing students mostly tell me that in high school they already learned grammar terminology. Neither high school system is inherently better; each chooses to emphasize different things.

When students enter our classrooms without background knowledge in grammar terminology, it constrains how much we can teach when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies. Conversely, when students bring such knowledge into the classroom, we’re enabled to do more. (And even when they have that background knowledge, their prior teachers may have used differing definitions for the same term, a problem I discuss in another blog post.)

A practical example helps: how do you address subject-verb agreement if most students don’t know what a subject or a verb is—not to mention related terms like noun, suffix, tense, grammatical number, auxiliary verb?

This obstacle certainly can be surmounted. I see two general approaches:

1. The traditional approach: you could start by explicitly teaching students the definitions of subject and verb. When we label the parts with jargon, the jargon makes the discussion easier to follow. But this approach has some pitfalls: it can bore students; grammatical definitions lack inherent sexiness. This also subtracts more instructional time from other topics. And you risk walking down the slippery slope of having to define many more grammatical terms.

2. The inductive approach: the concept of agreement can be taught through intuitive example sentences, while skirting the technical names of the sentence parts and thus saving time. I discuss the advantages of this approach here. The major disadvantage is that students do not acquire knowledge and definitions of grammatical jargon that they can use in the future.

Either way, it’s a trade-off.

My point is this: if you have an ambitious agenda when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies, think carefully about what your students already know. You might need to scale back your ambitions.

The Five Most Misleading Grammatical Terms

As a Linguist and as a college writing teacher, I’ve concluded that much of the grammar terminology used by writing teachers and grammar handbooks ought to be abolished and replaced. This terminology was never designed for pedagogical purposes or for the writing classroom. Instead, it has been passed down through generations of traditional grammarians and philologists. Much of this terminology was molded from the grammar of Latin—not English. Eventually it was adopted rather uncritically by composition teachers and textbook publishers, and not much has changed since.

Writing teachers often overlook issues around grammar jargon, assuming that everything has already been decided from on high. If we were taught the definition of “subject” by our third grade teacher, how could anything else possibly be right? As I mention in another post, we must minimize and carefully consider the grammar terminology that we introduce to students. Because it’s cumbersome and confusing to explicitly define grammar terminology for students, the best terminology comes with intuitive names.

Unintuitive names mislead. Students, teachers, and handbook authors can’t help but to intuit meaning from the names of terms, often in ways that read too deeply and lead them into mass confusion. For instance, when we hear that a sentence is “passive,” we infer that it must be weak and undesirable—a conclusion that seems reasonable but that proves simplistic.

In this post, I will list the five most misleading terms in the teaching of grammar. I’ll contrast the mythology that arises when we read too deeply into the name against the reality that has been discerned from half a century of linguistic research. Then I’ll propose for each term some more intuitive name as a replacement.

Number Five: Subordinating/Coordinating Conjunction

Myth: Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) connect two clauses of equal “importance” or “weight”:

1a. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives and it takes away from precious time with family.

while subordinating conjunctions (although, because, since, etc.) join clauses where the one following the subordinating conjunction carries less “importance” or “weight” than the other:

1b. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, although it takes away from precious time with family.

Fact: The distinction between coordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions has nothing to do with the importance or weight of the items being joined.

In another post, I explained in detail the real differences between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. I’ll sum up here: yes, conjunctions join clauses together, but the rest of the myth is a collective hallucination supported by a few carefully manipulated sentences in handbooks that seem to support it.

In the study of linguistics, researchers separate the semantic properties (meaning) of a given word from the syntactic properties (word order and sentence structure). It’s easy for non-Linguists to interchange the two, but these two subsystems of the language need to be examined separately.

Coordinating conjunctions differ crucially from subordinating conjunctions in their syntax. Most notably, coordinating conjunctions allow a robust range of possibilities, joining not just clauses but (almost) any two or more words/phrases, provided they are of the same type:

2a. He ordered us [to eat and to pray].

2b. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, and to love].

2c. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, to love, and to sleep].

On the other hand, subordinating conjunctions are much more limited in terms of the types of things they join together:

3. *He ordered us [to eat although to pray]. (Here and elsewhere, the asterisk denotes the sentences is ungrammatical.)

Further, they only join together exactly two clauses/things, but never more:

4. *The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, it is being used for many games and apps, although it takes away from precious time with family.

The term “coordination” derives from the fact that in many linguistic theories, two or more items conjoined with a coordinating conjunction exist at the same level in the syntactic structure of the sentence:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

whereas subordinating conjunctions join two items on disparate levels of the syntactic structure:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

Beyond that, it’s hard to draw a broad semantic generalization about the set of subordinating conjunctions, the set of coordinating conjunctions, and the “weight” or “importance” of the clauses they combine. The meaning contributed by a conjunction varies depending on the particular word, not the category of conjunction. Interestingly, some coordinating conjunctions share nearly identical meanings with some subordinating conjunctions—for instance, “although” and “but.”

A more intuitive name: get rid of the misleading coordination/subordination distinction. Why not just call them all “conjunctions” and encourage students to use a variety. As another alternative, we could call what are traditionally called “coordinating conjunctions” simply “conjunctions.” What have traditionally been called subordination conjunctions could simply be called “conjunctive prepositions,” since these words are treated as prepositions in many theories of grammar, and some (“as,” “after,” and “since”) actually double as more conventional prepositions:

5a. He strikes us as a con artist.

5b. Tom chased after Jerry.

5c. Since dinner, we haven’t eaten desert.

Number Four: Direct/Indirect Object

Myth: The direct object is the “receiver” of the action named by the verb. The indirect object is the “beneficiary” of the action named by the verb, or answers the questions “to whom?” or “for whom?”.

Fact: This definition depends too heavily on the semantics of the verb to analyze the syntax, and it’s nearly impossible to use when students apply it to the messiness of naturally occurring language.

Leaving aside the troubling fact that the mythological definitions of direct object and indirect object seem to overlap with one another, in the most prototypical examples fabricated in handbooks, it’s easy to figure out what the indirect object and direct object is:

6. John gave Mary a gift.

but when we look at more complex examples, these definitions are confusing and unhelpful for students who apply them to naturally occurring sentences of English:

7a. John had a bath.

7b. For his client, the attorney called the witness a con artist.

7c. I tossed the ball into the window.

The direct/indirect object distinction has been imported from the study of the grammar of Romance languages. In these languages, speakers choose completely different pronouns depending on whether an item is in direct or indirect object position, as we see in Spanish:

8a. Yo le di una galleta.

Literal translation: I gave him (indirect object) a cookie.

8b. Ella lo amaba.

Literal translation: She loved him (direct object).

In English, there’s no difference in the pronoun choice between direct objects and indirect objects, like there is between subjects and objects (“I” versus “me”). In teaching English writing to native speakers, I see no scenarios where students need to explicitly distinguish between direct and indirect objects. In other words, writing teachers should consider the direct/indirect object distinction a matter of grammar trivia, rather than something worth teaching.

A more intuitive name: Writing teachers would do best to circumvent this mountain, rather than try to scale it. If a definition is called for, grammar definitions that depend heavily on semantics are unwieldy and slippery. I would prefer clear-cut syntactic definitions that fit with the facts of English (rather than Romance languages) and that map straightforwardly onto a string of words. In this view, we could refer to objects of the verb as either “prepositional objects” and “non-prepositional objects”, depending on whether they occur within a prepositional phrase. Amongst non-prepositional objects, we could talk about the “first (non-prepositional) object” and the “second (non-prepositional) object”:

9. Gustavo bet Mercedes ten dollars on the game.

Number Three: Run-on sentence

Myth: A run-on sentence error occurs when a sentence goes on for too long.

Fact: It has nothing to do with length and everything to do with proper punctuation.

A run-on sentence is a punctuation error that occurs when two complete sentences are next to one another, without being joined by a conjunction (and, although, etc.) or being separated by an ending punctuation (period, semicolon, etc.):

10. I used this skill all through high school there is a particular time that sticks out in my mind.

While it’s true that many run-on sentences stretch out over a great length, that’s not their defining feature. A sentence stretched over an entire page, if punctuated properly, avoids being a run-on (though it raises questions of style). Conversely, you can have a very short sentence that’s a run on, such as:

11. I napped I awoke.

A more intuitive name: “run-together sentence error” or “fused sentence error.”

Number Two: Passive Sentence/Active Sentences

Myth: Passive sentences are weak and should be avoided. Use active sentences instead.

Fact: Sometimes that’s true, but passives serve important functions as well.

A passive construction differs from its non-passive counterpart primarily in terms of word order. Passive constructions occur when you start with a verb that both takes an object and allows the agent (or experiencer) role to be expressed as a grammatical subject:

12a. The policewoman smacked the kid.

To passivize it, add a version of the verb “be,” followed a verb in the past participle form. The subject position is filled by an argument canonically expressed by one of the verb’s objects, while the agent role either goes unexpressed, or is expressed in a prepositional phrase beginning with “by”:

12b. The kid was smacked (by the policewoman).

A significant part of my master’s thesis dealt with passive constructions, and I’ve come to appreciate their utility for speakers and writers. Some version of the passive construction exists in every language I’ve studied, and there’s a good reason. Speakers strongly prefer to select certain types of material as the grammatical subjects of their sentences, such as pronouns, phrases that refer to people, phrases that refer back to recent discourse, or phrases that are very brief.  Passive constructions allow speakers to reorder the canonical order to fulfill these desires. Thus, the subject selection in 13a provides a more natural way to express oneself compared with 13b:

13a. When I got off the bus, I was hit by a huge icicle .

13b. When I got off the bus, a huge icicle hit me .

Furthermore, speakers can often omit the agent of a verb when they desire to be concise or the agent can easily be inferred by speakers. To illustrate, compare the following:

14a. In Math class, homework was given. (passive)

14b. In Math class, the teacher gave homework. (active)

Passive sentences work fine in many contexts, but they can degrade the clarity and style of the writing when overused, or when used in the wrong situations. When misused, passive constructions can produce vague writing laden with bureaucratic evasiveness:

15. With regard to the oversight committee, it appears that mistakes may have been made and a procedures review will now be undertaken.

Interestingly, some people overgeneralize and even label sentences as “passive” just because they sound empty or impersonal for other reasons, rather than actually containing a passive construction:

16. Downsizing may or may not occur.

A more intuitive name:  “subject/object reordering.”

Number One: Subject

from p. 128 of Real Skills with Readings by Susan Anker, 2nd ed., 2010

Myth:The subject is what a sentence is about, or the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb.

Fact: Often the myth proves true, but I’ve never seen a worse name for a piece of grammatical terminology or one more riddled with ambiguity.

The term “subject” has countless meanings to everyday people. To people who study literature and philosophy, “subject” carries even more meanings. None of these have much to do with it’s grammatical meaning.

To linguists, a “subject” is strictly a syntactic and morpho-syntactic category, and it has little to do with the semantics of the verb or the meaning of the sentence. It’s a position in the syntax of a sentence. That’s all. Almost always, the subject position is a noun phrase that’s before the verb, and almost always, the verb morphology agrees with the subject in number.

17a. The guys walk  into the store.

17b. The guy walks into the store.

Although it’s frequently the case that the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb, this not always the case, such as with passive constructions.

18. The boy on the skateboard was barked at.

Further, a huge number of sentences lack a “doer,” yet they still have a grammatical subject:

19a. There is a problem with this file.

19b. Two plus two equals four.

19c. It rained out here last night.

Finally, the definition where a subject is what a sentence is “about” is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and it will drive students crazy. Clearly, most sentences are “about” many things all at once.

A more intuitive name: “initial position” or “pre-verbal position”

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.

Minimizing Grammar Jargon in the Classroom

First, let’s start with what not to do—don’t overwhelm writing students with jargon. Many students instantly tense up when they hear all sorts of grammatical terminology. Especially if their prior preparation is less than ideal, jargon can be intimidating and confusing. Not knowing the inside jargon reinforces nontraditional students’ feeling of being outsiders in academia. At the same time, much of the traditional terminology is unneeded when it comes to the practicalities of teaching writing.

Jargon cannot be avoided completely in the teaching of grammar and mechanics, and it carries some utility. The benefit to jargon is that once students understand the concept it names and the classroom shares a common vocabulary, the jargon helps teachers be precise and save time. You’ll probably need to use some, so when you choose to introduce jargon, consider the purposes for doing so, and avoid the grammatical jargon if possible. As a rule, I try to only introduce grammar jargon if I know that I’m going to refer to the concept at some point in the future. When you do introduce grammar jargon, ensure that students understand the concept to which it refers. Formal definitions can help, but most students will learn it better if you also illustrate the concept by through an example sentence.

Even if students have been taught grammatical terminology in prior classes, you cannot assume that they share a common vocabulary. With many concepts, there is no widely agreed upon name. Different textbooks/teachers use terms inconsistently, and there are many instances where different terms to refer to the same concept. Consider a simple example:

1. Going to the park, I saw the person I was trying to avoid.

Some textbooks refer to the underlined phrase as a present participial phrase, while others call it a verbal or a verbal phrase.  Since no one polices the conventions of grammar jargon, textbooks/teachers are never going to all agree on a common lexicon.

Consider now the issue that teachers have to face when it comes to teaching students the conventions of using commas inside sentences. There are many phrases that are often delimited on each side by commas. Here are some examples

2. After eating, the dogs came in.
3. It was a good idea, after a long day at the office and running around to pick up the kids, to unwind on the couch and have an enjoyable snack.
4. John, in fact, did much better than he expected on the exam.

Strictly speaking, the commas are optional to delimit the phrase, but the commas become more necessary when the phrase is longer or when they help the reader to avoid misparsing the sentence.[1] These phrases have variously been referred to as transitional expressions, parenthetical expressions, introductory expressions, asides, interruptions. Whatever they are called, they pattern similarly in terms of comma usage. Given the over-riding similiarities, why burden the classroom with a whole spate of jargon to describe them. All else being equal, students gain little from knowing all these different terms. If all these phrases function the same way, why not just pick one thing to call them. In my class, I call them interruptions or—when they are at the start of a sentence—introductory words.

The jargon you use should have intuitive names. Don’t feel bound to the traditional terminology. Some common examples of grammar jargon have misleading names, and should thus be avoided. Let’s consider the term “run-on sentence,” an error which occurs when two sentences are right next to one another, and there is no connective word or ending punctuation between the two. I find that students readily misinterpret the term “run-on” to mean that the sentence goes on for too long. But there’s nothing wrong per se with a long sentence; in fact, many of us aim for students to write long, elegant sentences. Instead, the issue that there’s a missing connective or ending punctuation. A more intuitive way to talk about this issue would be to eschew the term “run-on” and instead say that two sentences run-together. Once students get this concept, then you can name it as a “run-together sentence.”—a term that’s more intuitive.

Avoid jargon if a more common lay-term would work just as well. A common example of unneeded jargon is the term “suffix.” Many basic and developmental writing students may not know this term, so using it would introduce an added layer of confusion and might take up additional class time. Instead, why not use the synonymous lay-term “word ending”, which works just as well. I’ve found that in many situations, you can refer to many different categories of errors—such as missing/incorrect suffixes, subject-verb agreement, possessive usage—all under the category of errors with word endings. Word ending errors are especially common when students’ written literacy is strongly influenced by their oral literacy, given that in general, the endings off words are not as clearly pronounced in speech (even with native speakers) as the rest of the word. Much of the time, if you tell a student that there’s an error with the word ending, they will be able to correct it on their own, and you don’t have to burden them with any more jargon.


[1] Huddleston & Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. P. 1746.