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Review of Joseph M. Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error”

I recommend that you read Joseph M. Williams’s The Phenomenology of Error as a companion piece to Patrick Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. Both readings form the foundation for thoughtful discussions into the specifics of sentence-level pedagogies. Just as Hartwell questions what “grammar” means, Williams questions what linguistic “error” means, and what epistemologies and methodologies underlie labeling an expression an error. Williams and Hartwell help us see that “error” and “grammar” are often used in a sloppy, untheorized way, which forces us to lump disparate items into the same broad category.

Joseph M. Williams, author of The Phenomenology of Error.

Williams begins by comparing linguistic errors with social errors. This comparison lets us view error not in the usual product-centric perspective, where error exists on the page of a text, but in a transactional perspective, where error is socially situated within a flawed transaction between writer and reader. At the same time, Williams points out a hole in the analogy between social error and linguistic error: social errors can cause big problems; linguistic errors largely cluster into the domain of the trivial.

Williams views the common methodologies of defining error (and the rules that demarcate error) with skepticism, for several reasons:

1. One common methodology has researchers survey people about whether a given expression contains an error. Such surveys, Williams believes, are flawed. The question itself is leading. It entices us to read more self-consciously, and self-conscious readers over-report perceived errors.

2. We report our own linguistic habits inaccurately. How we profess to use the language differs from how we actually do. As evidence, Williams cites several prominent handbook authors whose attested usage contradicts their own prescriptions for usage (sometimes in the same sentence!).

3. In determining error, we tend to appeal too trustingly to the authority of a handbook or a teacher.

4. Regardless of our methodology, no one can ever agree on what things constitute grammatical errors.

How do we address these issues? Williams begins by contrasting two ways of reading: how we read when we hunt for errors (the way many teachers read student essays), versus how we read when we read for content (the way we read experts’ writing). Williams believes that if we read the second way, we can develop a formal classification of at least four types of rules:

1. Those we notice if followed and if violated.

2. Those we notice if followed but not if violated.

3. Those we don’t notice if followed but do if violated.

4.  Those we never notice, regardless of whether followed or violated.

This last sort strikes me as an interesting category—vacuous errors printed in some handbooks but with no psycholinguistic reality. Each person might categorize any given rule into different categories. That’s expected. Crucially, when we read for content, not every rule (or “rule”) will enter into our consciousness.

Williams’s categorization of rules could be further elaborated in the way suggested by Hartwell’s five definitions of “grammar.” For any rule posited, what forces are said to motivate it?

• Does the rule differentiate “standard” written English from less prestigious dialects?
• Does it help to enhance rhetorical style?
• Is it a core part of the grammar of all dialects?
• Does it distinguish native speakers from ESL learners?
• Is it some grammarian’s pet-peeve?

Williams prescribes a big change for teachers and language researchers. Regardless of what “experts” posit as error, teachers and researchers should focus their attention on the sorts of errors that rudely interpose themselves when we read for content, rather than defining error by appealing to outside authority. (At the end of the essay, Williams makes the much celebrated revelation that his own essay embodies this principle: he has inserted numerous errors into the article, errors which most readers will—on their first read—overlook.)

At the end, Williams concedes that his proposal might prove futile. Why? We get more satisfaction from hunting for errors and chastising supposed linguistic transgressors. Grammar Nazism and the “gotcha!” approach to language satisfy us more than merely noting what jumps out to us on a non-self-conscious reading.

Three decades after this article was first published, Williams’s proposal has carried more influence than he could have predicted. For one, linguists and psycholinguists have developed even more sophisticated methodologies for carefully assessing various shades of grammaticality. Linguists search corpuses of actual speech and writing to see what usages are attested (Google enables anyone with an internet connection to do a crude version of this sort of research). Psycholinguists rely on furtive research techniques to gauge grammaticality, such as cameras that track reader’s eye movements, reaction-time tasks, and even brain imaging.

At the same time, the grammar Nazism of prior generations has faded somewhat from the collective consciousness. Consider three pieces of evidence:

1. The specific prescriptive rules that Williams discusses throughout his essay seem dated. In fact, when I recently assigned this essay to my advanced composition students, they were confused because they knew nothing about these rules.

2. Two of the most influential language commentators in the popular media—Geoffrey Nunberg and Grammar Girl—base their analysis and usage advice not on cocksure pronouncements of correctness or dogmatic appeals to authority, but on careful historical research and corpus research that takes into account an impressive range of linguistic subtleties.

3. If they’ve been trained in the past three decades, every writing teacher I’ve met tends to take a non-dogmatic approach to sentence-level rules and error.

But one force will always be working against Williams’s proposal: native-speakers’ over-confidence in what they know about their language. As native speakers, we are swimming in the English language. And we’ve been using it since we were toddling. So any native speaker can easily authorize themselves to wear the hat of the grammar Nazi, and inveigh against whatever “error” so happens to bug them.

Although I embrace Williams’s rejection of the handbook’s authority when it comes to my own writing, my principal critique of Williams’s article stems from this fact: Williams taught at The University of Chicago. His classrooms were composed of the country’s elite students. The sentence-level needs of his students share little in common with those of the under-prepared students that most of us teach. I’m guessing that Williams’s students wrote relatively clean, sophisticated sentences and found it easy to navigate the subtleties and ambiguities of English usage.

Under-prepared students don’t cope as well with these complexities. A legitimate argument can be be made that they benefit from the authoritarian clarity and structure of the rigid prescriptive rules that characterize handbooks. In this view, handbook rules function as a necessary evil that serves a purpose at a certain stage in writers’ development, like the five-paragraph essay. Williams probably lacked the perspective to appreciate this.

Ten Ways to Keep Grammar Relaxed and Fun

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

To too many teachers and students, the term “grammar” is synonymous with “boredom.” Further, Patrick Hartwell has suggested that teachers use grammar instruction to assert power over students.[1]

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I was recently asked how I keep my sentence-level instruction relaxed and fun for students. Here are ten ways:

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn't like that.

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn’t like that.

1. Don’t play the drill sergeant.  Teachers easily default into drill-sergeant mode when discussing grammar, trying to explain every detail with confident authority. I avoid this. For one, most rules (or “rules”) aren’t as clear-cut as is suggested by the cocksure writers of handbooks. Things change over time. When we look carefully, we see countless exceptions and countless areas of controversy in the language where attested usages disagree and where respected writers also disagree. Yes, you should generally avoid starting a sentence with “and,” but who cares if you do it every now and then?

2. Ask students to read a paragraph without any punctuationYou can take this to the extreme: no capitalization and no spacing between words!  Not surprisingly, students struggle with the reading. But this struggle helps them understand that punctuation  wasn’t invented for English teachers to torture their students; it serves a real purpose for readers.  (I sometimes accompany this activity with a picture of an ancient Greek manuscript, which shows that the convention of no punctuation was once widely accepted.)

3. Discuss slang and neologisms. When I was recently discussing parts of speech and the discussion moved to articles, I not only gave the standard examples (“a,” “the,” and “each”), but I also added “hella.” (it’s the way youth in northern California make “many” superlative.) When we arrived at verbs, I mentioned “chilax,” and asked a knowledgeable student to define it for the class. When we talked about verbing nouns, I mentioned mention the act of “Tebowing.” When students hear these examples, they light up.

4. Make fun of silly prescriptive “rules.”  These “rules” were invented by 18th-century grammarians who worried that English was a degenerate version of Latin sullied by “false syntax.”[2]  The classic example include the “rule” against splitting and infinitive and the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition, both modeled on Latin grammar. Yes, in Latin and the romance languages, you truly can’t end a sentence this way or split an infinitive (because it’s one word). It’s unattested. But English isn’t Latin. It’s not even a Romance language. So the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition makes as much sense as applying to English the patterns of Sanskrit or Swahili.

5. Contrast the conventions of school writing with texting. This is a subject where students have so much to say. Most students are keenly aware of the difference, especially when it comes to spelling and punctuation. I ask them about the impacts of texting on their writing. Students are shocked to find out that—contrary to what many assume—texting probably won’t destroy their language skills.

6. Question what we assume about people based on their linguistic habits. These assumptions relate to one’s morals, intelligence, and  manners—as pointed out by Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom. I ask students if these assumptions are based in logic, prejudice, or both. Again, students have tons to say about this rich topic for discussion, in part because many have themselves been judged based on their linguistic habits.

7. Make fun of the ridiculousness of language. Every language, when carefully examined, contains patterns that are the antithesis of intelligent design, as I’ve written in this post. For instance, we drive on a “parkway” and park on a “driveway.” Uh? Also, English very logically uses the same suffix to pluralize nouns as it does to make present tense verbs agree with third-person, singular subjects. Why? Because.

8. Use memorable or goofy example sentences. Many of my teachers, a long time ago, used goofy examples to prove a grammatical point that still sticks in my head. These sentences featured death metal and violent zoo animals.  Too often, we default to sentences about Dick and Jane. Yawn. The best examples are ones that you’ve designed in advance, rather than generating them on the spot. Quotes of politicians putting their feet in their mouths work well. So do sentence with pop-culture references. I’ve written about good examples sentences in this post and also in this one. A good pair of example sentences often illustrates a point much better than a long-winded technical explanation.

9. Play the typo game. This game reverses the usual power dynamic: usually the teacher catches student errors. For the typo game, the students catch the teacher’s errors. Whenever the teacher makes a typo on the chalkboard or a handout, the first student to bring it to the teacher’s attention gets a point. At the end of the term, the top point-getters receive extra credit. The typo game helps students see that yes, even English teachers make mistakes, and it teaches them to shed their paranoia about the tiny mistakes we all make and instead focus on what’s important.

10. Admit what you don’t know. Just like in Psychology, Astrophysics, or Medicine, the study of language contains many mysteries and idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation. Some questions about grammar I truly don’t know how to answer, or might require research. For instance, when students ask me whether certain compound words are written as two words, one word, or a hyphenated word, I often confess that I don’t know, more than one way might be accepted, and we could use Google to research what actual writers are doing.


[1] Patrick Hartwell. 1985. Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Second Edition. 2003. Edited by Victor Villanueva. P. 228.

[2] Brock Haussamen. 1997. Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern LinguisticsP. 14 – 19.

“Should I Teach Grammar?”

It’s a common question that gets raised in graduate seminars and in teachers’ lounges. But it’s the wrong question to ask. Here’s six reasons why:

First, framing the question this way tends to promote polarized and polarizing reactions. The questions needs to be reframed in a way that allows for the full complexity and range of options that we face as teachers.

Second, the question has already been answered for you. As a writing teacher, you are expected to have something to say about grammar, even if it’s not a centerpiece of your teaching. Many course descriptions mandate some form of teaching about grammar and mechanics, and our students, our institutions, and the public at large all look to writing teachers for answers to their questions about grammar. Does anyone expect that to change?

Third, what exactly does “grammar” mean? Patrick Hartwell raised this issue a quarter century ago. As I discussed in another post, each person seems to take “grammar” to mean something different. To one person, grammar means teaching students the conventions of comma usage, to another it means teaching students to diagram sentences, and to others it means enhancing one’s style for rhetorical effect. If you don’t know what you’re referring to, how can you answer the question?

Fourth, it depends on what your strengths are as a teacher. Some of us are good at leading open-ended discussions, some of us are good at working one-on-one with students, and others of us are good at talking about sentence structure. If you excel at this last category, and you can translate it to a specific improvement in your students’ writing, then why not teach to your strengths?

Fifth, you need to have a sense of who your students are and what their needs are. For instance, my developmental writing students produce prose that contains countless errors with sentence boundaries, including comma-splices, run-ons, and fragments. These errors often trip me up when I read and obscure my understanding in serious ways. It would be negligent of me to ignore this in my teaching and pretend like the problem will correct itself. At the same time, many of my developmental students enter the class without the meta-linguistic vocabulary to allow us talk about grammar issues, which places a substantial limit on how much I can teach them about grammar in a semester.

When I taught advanced undergraduates at a selective university, things couldn’t have been more different. Most of their mechanical errors were minor, and could be quickly corrected by students if I underlined them in drafts and reminded them to proofread. At the same time, these students entered my class with substantial meta-linguistic vocabulary, which could have enabled me to teach them much about grammar. (I chose not to spend much time on grammar beyond what the course description required, because this would have taken away time that I thought would be better spent on other activities.)

Sixth, you need to consider what activities your grammar teaching is taking time away from. I’ve begun to think about the teaching of writing in the following way: the things a student needs to know to be an effective writer far exceed what could reasonably fit into a single-semester (or year-long) course. When we plan our courses, much of what we have to do is make a series of trade-offs and prioritizations, and sadly, many important topics won’t make the cut. In every class I’ve taught, there are countless topics that rank more highly than grammar and mechanics–but never so much so that I decided to entirely drop grammar and mechanics from the course plan.

So the next time you find yourself in the debate of “whether to teach grammar,” consider the issues above and then reframe the question: Given who I am, who my students are, and what my institution requires of me, what should the goals of grammar instruction be? Once you know the goals, what pedagogical methods would best meet them? It’s crucial to separate the goals from the methods. When many people object to “the teaching of grammar,” their objection is often more about the methods than the goals.

The Writing Teacher’s Schizophrenia about Teaching Grammar

When it comes to grammar, the discipline of composition is afflicted by a fundamental schizophrenia.

On one hand, a thriving, decades-long tradition of scholarship has portrayed grammar as a pedagogically unhelpful waste of time, when compared with whole-language instruction. Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock document the progression of this tradition, which has both produced a litany of influential scholarship and shaped official NCTE and CCC policy. Richard Connors refers to this phenomenon as “The Erasure of the Sentence” from the professional discourse of composition teachers.

On the other hand, if we look to what actually happens in the classroom, as well as what appears in handbooks and textbooks, we see that the teaching of grammar continues to hold a significant place at all levels of post-secondary composition. I’m not the first person to note this schizophrenia. Brock Haussamen writes that “[G]rammar continues to be taught at all levels, the textbook industry thrives, but the topic is taboo as both a recognized part of the English curriculum and a subject for professional attention” (30).

The mere mention of the term grammar is polarizing. Many teachers have strong opinions about some detail of grammar or usage, and many insist that their unique way of teaching it has enhanced the writing of their students. To others, grammar brings to mind the oppressive image of the drill-sergeant instructor. The fact that the term grammar is in many ways ambiguous only ramps up the tensions. Over a quarter century ago, Patrick Hartwell pointed out that the term grammar can mean many things to many people—rhetorical grammar, pedagogical grammar, generative grammar, grammar for ESL, prescriptive grammar, and so on—an ambiguity that has led to countless misunderstandings. A quarter of a century after Hartwell’s influential article, the grammar debate is beginning to look like the case of the old married couple having the same argument over and over, and each still thinks the argument is about something totally different.

The vacuum of scholarly interest in analysis of grammar has effectively allowed the discourse on grammar instruction to be outsourced to the textbook publishing industry. This is unfortunate, since most textbooks, workbooks, and handbooks that deal with grammar are most notable for their sameness, and for their hesitance to deviate from tradition.

Most teachers lack the expertise to effectively challenge what the textbooks say or construct new pedagogical approaches. Training in grammar is required by few institutions that hire (non-ESL) teachers of writing and few of the graduate programs that produce these teachers provide anything more than a cursory training. Therefore, when they find themselves in the unavoidable position where they must talk about grammar, which is mandated by many course descriptions, most writing teachers can only fall back on definitions they gleaned as undergrads, the tips they picked up in the teachers’ lounge, or what they read (or assign to their own students) in textbooks.

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.