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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.

Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivsm aren’t so Contradictory

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella discusses two general approaches to the grammar of the English language—prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whether or not you’ve heard of these terms before, the distinction matters, since your teaching of grammar is necessarily shaped by one or both. In this post, I’m going to discuss each, show their strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for how I believe teachers can combine the two to get the best of both when they teach issues of grammar.

Prescriptivism aims to dictate how people should be using the language. Put commas here. Don’t put semi-colons there. Say “different than” instead of “different from,” etc. Though “prescriptivism” has acquired something of a dirty name in many circles, the dictates that fall under the category of prescriptivism can range from the sensible and uncontroversial (capitalize people’s names), to the baseless and trivial (don’t end a sentence with a preposition).

Descriptivism attempts to describe how the language is actually used, without necessarily advocating that people have to be doing things in a certain way. Before making any claims, a descriptivist would examine existing writing, corpuses of spontaneous speech, or observations of how people around them use language. From this, they would draw generalization about the structure of the language, the ways things vary from one speaker to the next, and how things change with time, etc.

To make the conversation less abstract, consider how descriptivists and presecriptivists would each deal with an actual issue of English usage. Let’s say that you join together two clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them:

1. I ate the fish tacos but I’m still alive.

The issue here is whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. According to the prescriptivist handbook Rules for Writers, you should put a comma before coordinating conjunctions (and/but/or/etc.) joining two clauses, unless the clauses being joined are “short.”[1] In a 1987 descriptive study, Charles Frederick Meyer analyzed 72,000 words of published writing, concluding that a rule like this prescriptive one is generally accurate, except that writers tended to omit the comma if the conjunction was and, while adding it if the conjunction was but.[2] In this case, the prescriptivist and the descriptivist use different methods to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions. (In reality, I suspect that many other variables influence whether a writer chooses to use a comma in these contexts, but such a discussion is beyond my scope here.)

In their most extreme forms, rigid prescriptivism and rigid descriptivism work poorly in the writing classroom. Extreme prescriptivists are ignorant to the realities of language, or they even betray prejudice against those who speak different dialects and registers. On the other hand, extreme descriptivists, when they teach writing, sometimes open themselves up to the criticism that their “anything goes” attitude conveys a lack of standards for their students that may even disempower linguistic minorities who wish to acquire the language of power. Both of these extremes, however, represent straw men; every experienced writing teacher I’ve known takes a more moderate position.

Although descriptivism dominates the field of Linguistics, writing teachers are oriented somewhat more towards prescriptivism. This shouldn’t surprise. After all, writing teachers aim to get students to write in a certain way (rather than to have students comprehend all the complexities of grammar). Our prescriptivism manifests itself when we correct students’ grammar in their essays, we refer them to handbooks that tell them how to punctuate, and we give them workbook exercises where the answer key gives one correct answer.

When we’re too heavily oriented towards a prescriptive approach to usage, it blinds us to appreciating the true reality of our language and how people actually resolve vexing issues of usage. For instance, consider the issue of how to express the third person, singular, epicene (neither male nor female) pronoun. What word goes in the blank here:

2. Someone left a car with its lights on in the parking lot, and ___ also forgot to close the windows.

In addition to s/he, he or she, prescriptivists have suggested over eighty possibilities, including himorher, hann, and ze, almost all of which are awkward and never catch on.[3] (Historically speaking, few prescriptive innovations, in fact, ever catch on widely beyond a small segment of educated, self-conscious writers.) Meanwhile, John H. McWhorter, a descriptivist, points out that the pronoun they has long been used as a singular, third person epicene.[4] But a descriptivist who points this out begins to sound like they’re making a prescription!

To Acocella, descriptivism and prescriptivism are at odds with one another—one’s stance is either prescriptivist or descriptivist. At the end of her article, she claims that if you espouse both, you’re contradicting yourself. Here Acocella operates within a false dichotomy that shows an incomplete understanding. The two approaches operate at cross purposes. Descriptivism is essentially a stance that’s geared towards inquiry, one that rightly sees human language as a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be studied and understood without drawing value judgments, much as a Biologist would study the structure of a cell. With prescriptivism, the goal is more oriented towards practical ends, to influence how others use language, often in certain formal contexts such as public speaking or academic writing, or even to alter the future development of the language.

Acocella overlooks how perscriptivism and descriptivism each tend to focus on separate issues within the language. Prescriptivists focus on those areas of the language where certain usages cause controversy or where novice writers tend to make mistakes. Descriptivists often see such issues as relatively minor, and take a broader focus. In fact, many of the generalizations captured by descriptivists are transparent to prescriptivists. What prescriptivist would bother with injunctions to put the article before its noun or the subject before its verb? It’s so uncontroversially part of English syntax that it hardly seems worth prescriptivists’ time, whereas a descriptivist would point out that other languages allow other word orders.

In practice, the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism grows fuzzy, since each approach readily co-opts the other. The prescriptive approach constantly masquerades in the guise of descriptivism. This is the common orientation of many handbooks. When they make sweeping generalizations about how to use grammar and how to punctuate, they imply that this is just how everyone does it, and you should too. But a closer reading reveals that these examples are rarely backed up by solid evidence—just an authoritative, imperative tone, the weight of prescriptive tradition, and a few example sentences manufactured to back up their particular claim. Conversely, Acocella points out that being a descriptivist can be a form of prescribing what people should do, in the sense that descriptivists tend to be laissez-faire about many issues of usage. The descriptivist prescribes that each person should do what’s natural to them.

When we teach, our teaching must be informed by both approaches to language. We must be prescriptivists, because that is what writing teachers are expected to do—we prepare students to write effectively in certain types of formal situations. Students would grow annoyed if we refused to advise them on how to deal with the conventions of usage and mechanics. At the same time, our prescriptions need to be better informed by accurate descriptions of the English language, and by what is pedagogically appropriate. This is not to say that our prescriptions should match perfectly with descriptive grammars, but only that we need to think carefully the relationship between the two.

When balancing prescriptivism and descriptivism, we must make a constant trade off between being empirically accurate and comprehensive on one hand, and being clear, simple, and brief with our students on the other. It’s impossible to do everything. The advantage to prescriptitivism is that it simplifies the boundless complexities of language and elides the murky areas of ambiguity. This makes it easier to teach, easier for students to digest, and easier for teachers to evaluate. The disadvantage is that prescriptive approaches sometimes line up poorly with English as it is actually used by respected writers. This is one of many reasons that grammar instruction confuses students. Their teacher tells them to do it one way, and they see the authors of assigned readings doing something else entirely. What message does this send to students?

A thoughtful writing teacher comes up with a prescription for their students that approximates the descriptive reality and that helps them express themselves effectively. It won’t be perfect, it won’t cover every exception and irregularity, but it will get students close enough. Students demand authoritative responses to their uncertainties, but thoughtful teachers can acknowledge that they don’t know everything about grammar. When students go on to their next class, they can work through the remaining complexities on their own.


[1] p. 292 – 293

[2] This study is described on p.154 – 155 of Revising the Rules by Brock Haussamen.

[4] “Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution”. p. 373 – 380 in Language Awareness.

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.