Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Slice of Life, March 11th--"In Defense of Grammar"

I know this statement has the potential to make me unpopular, but the honest truth is I love grammar. I feel like I have to defend myself in this quite often because many people do not feel the same way. Whether it's students, other educators, or just the general public, the consensus is, most often, that grammar stinks.

When I ask people what they hate so much about it, the most common answer I get is that it just "doesn't make sense." I respect that people are entitled to their opinion, but truthfully, grammar does make sense. Yes, there are the "exceptions" that come up every once in awhile, but every subject has that!

I love grammar for many reasons. Allow me to elaborate.

First, it brings order to (what can be) the confusing chaos of written communication. It is the method by which we make sense to each other. It enables us to say what we mean in precisely the way that we mean it.

Second, knowledge of grammar is empowering. I have seen so many children blossom in their writing as they begin to understand why they have received red marks in the past on their writing or have gotten comments that something was not "a complete sentence." It's not because they are bad writers, but because the knowledge of grammar was held by only the teacher. As they gain more knowledge about language, they can craft sentences that are not just grammatically correct, but they also feel confident sharing their work with others.

Third, knowledge of grammar enables creativity with language. Just as an artist must have a rudimentary knowledge of paint and brushstrokes before they can create an abstract, original piece of work, so a writer must understand the construction of sentences before they can experiment knowledgeably with words. I had an art history professor in college that explained why work that looked like splattered paint could hang in a gallery next to the Mona Lisa. Just because a piece of art does not "look" as hard or as "thought-out" as the one hanging next to it, she said, does not demean or lower its value as art. Art is defined by the process many times, not the complexity of the product. Sometimes a less complicated, more rudimentary piece of art "says" more in its simplicity than a grand painting 12 feet tall.  In the same way, writing should be judged by the process and effect on the audience, not always the final product. Knowledge of grammar allows a poet who writes 40 well-crafted, thoughtfully-placed words to gain the same acclaim as the writer of a classic novel that is 400 pages long.

Last, it creates a common language in which we can communicate as writers about our writing. I love that my students can discuss why a prepositional phrase would make sense in one spot of their sentence over another spot. I enjoy hearing them defend their choices about why they are using several simple sentences over a compound sentence. Maybe they don't NEED to know the names of the different types, but why would I withhold that information when it is so simple to impart? Why wouldn't I teach them the full expanse and variety that is available to them within the English language when it is within my power to do so?

So, please, teachers, don't let the reason you skip grammar be because you feel it's not important or because it stifles students' creativity in writing. I find that it does the opposite. As they learn more about the English language, they begin to take ownership of their own writing. It becomes an art that they craft using creative word choice, sentences structure, and organization. It allows the beauty of language to flow from students in bold, new ways. It creates original, knowledgeable writers.

To the students, learn it. You don't have to love it, but learn it! It will become your friend in the most unexpected of circumstances and help you in ways you cannot anticipate. Grammar equals power. Everyone has something to say; it's how you say it that makes the difference in whether you are heard.

Thanks for listening, slice of life community. I've needed to say that for a long time, and it feels good to do so.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! I always loved grammar as a student, but I struggled with it as a teacher. One of the books that transformed the way I think about teaching grammar is Harry Noden's IMAGE GRAMMAR. Like you, he compares grammar and writing to creating art. Now teaching participles is one of my favorite lessons because I teach students to add motion and action to their writing through participles. We also write sentences modeled after professional examples, much as art students copy paintings by the masters in museums. Hmm...maybe you've inspired me to write another post!

  2. Grammar is so hard to learn and remember. I'm taking a TEFL class right now and re-learning the grammar is killing me. It's amazing how much you forget after elementary school/junior high. I'm in my 40s. You can imagine how much I've retained. Very little.

  3. Maybe because I'm a linguistics professor and ESL instructor, as soon as I saw the word 'grammar' on the SOLC postings, I knew I had to read what you had to say. Usually during the first week of the semester, I ask students in my undergraduate linguistics course if they had a teacher in their high school or middle school experience who taught grammar, and out of 80 students, there are usually around five students with their hands in the air.