Posts Tagged ‘Mike Rose’

What Back Pain and Grammatical Errors Share in Common

When you complain to your doctor of back pain, your doctor has the option of approaching the problem from many angles. They could approach it as a structural problem, in which case they order an MRI or physical therapy. They could approach it as a manifestation of a high-stress lifestyle: exercise more and work less. Is it as an issue of tissue inflammation? Take some ibuprofen and apply heat/ice.

When teachers find a grammatical error in student writing, the stakes are lower and the relationship less clinical, but we face a similar sort of decision. How we categorize the errors in student essays is neither trivial nor straightforward. It caries important implications for how we understand it and how a student addresses it.

To see this, try a simple experiment—read the following sentence, which closely resembles a sentence in a student essay I recently read, and then say what type of error it contains:

1. I don’t have much time to surf the internet like my little cousin, who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day, I have work and school to take care of.

Most people will classify this error as a comma splice between “day” and “I.” This is how I was inclined to mark it. But marking it as a comma splice is mainly the result of tradition.

If we leave traditional typologies of error aside, the error could have been labeled as:

  • A failure to insert a conjunction. Perhaps the student wanted to join multiple clauses together, but didn’t know how. This categorization would make sense in the context of a Christensen-inspired sentence-combining pedagogy.
  • An error with the punctuation of a non-restrictive clause. The phrase “who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day” is used non-restrictively, and students are often instructed to set these off with commas. Perhaps the student over-generalized that principle.
  • An error due to an oral-sounding sentence. When students’ speech influences their writing, they might sprinkle in commas where they “sound” right or mix up one type of punctuation with another (commas and periods). After all, in speech, commas and periods sound the same—like silence.

In another view, the error in #1 exists in our imagination only. Edgar Shuster notes that what are traditionally categorized as comma-splice errors do appear intentionally in professional writing.[1] Anecdotally, I have seen an increased incidence of comma-splices in the edited writing of the English teachers that I work with. Punctuation standards change. Twenty years from now, who knows if teachers will judge sentences like #1 as error-free?

There’s no “right” answer on how to categorize this error. Just as back pain is influenced by many factors and can be addressed in many ways, the same holds with student errors. With English grammar and the human spine, many complicated subsystems interact, and a student error often results when several things go wrong at once. Before a doctor chooses how to approach the problem, they need to learn more about the whole person. Likewise, the instructor needs to know something about the student’s background and the pattern of errors in the rest of the essay.

Many grammar errors might better be understood as the surface manifestations of “deeper” problems students are facing. Just as the back and neck muscles tense up painfully under psychological stress, a student who otherwise writes error-free prose slips into clumsy, ungrammatical sentences when they push beyond their zones of comfort, think through complex issues, or try to sound “academic” to their teacher—a point which has been made by Mike Rose[2], David Bartholomae[3] and Ian Barnard[4]. Students’ language processing centers overload when they try—all at once—to think through complex ideas, weave together elaborate syntaxes, and deal with all the other demands of writing and being human.

How you categorize an error strongly suggests to the student how to address it. Labelling the error in #1 a comma-splice suggests the student should change the comma to a period. Labelling it an error with a missing conjunction suggests the student should review the ways to combine sentences. And labeling it a speech-based error suggest that the student needs to more generally become more attuned to the differences between written academic English and the version English they speak at home and with friends.

Finally, let’s consider three less-directive alternatives to the categorizations of the error discussed above:

  • Maybe we don’t even need to bother with categorizing the error. Maybe the student already knows how to fix it. Sometimes students just need to be reminded to proofread.
  • It could be categorized simply as an “error,” with no finer-grained distinctions made. Smart teachers know when it’s futile to try to understand what was going on inside a student’s head. In this case, the student is left to figure out how to fix it. This implies a non-directive pedagogy where students take the initiative in improving their writing.
  • Or the teacher could have ignored the error and said nothing, which suggests to student that in the universe of issues to address in their essay, this one ranks low.

Doctors often respond this way to short-term back pain, essentially brushing it off. Like many student errors, it often disappears on its own with little to no intervention. Patients’ health faces a bigger threat from unintended consequences when the doctor over-treats the initial problem. And I’d argue that a parallel principle holds when teachers have to decide how to respond to a wide swath grammatical errors.


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

April 12, 2012 1 comment

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.