Hero worship: Musings on Mulroy’s “War Against Grammar”

My previous post outlined David Mulroy’s incisive brief for formal instruction in punctuation, grammar and syntax, “The War Against Grammar.” Here’s why Mulroy’s 2003 book made me so happy.

First, his fierceness. Mulroy gives the anti-grammarian contingent no quarter. His attack on the studies educators have used for decades to argue that formal grammar instruction hinders students’ ability to learn to write demolishes those arguments, arguments that seem on their face, to me, to anyone who knows grammar, to anyone born before 1960, say, idiotic. He shows that these studies did not set out to answer the question at hand or used mature rather than youthful subjects. He reveals the sophism, the deceptiveness (unwitting, we’ll say, giving the benefit of the doubt) behind the earnestness of the “language arts” crowd. When did literature, reading and writing become “language arts,” anyway? When people make specific things vague, I gnash my teeth.

Second, Mulroy’s book beautifully articulates ideas that I’ve had in my head for years, ideas I’ve talked about with colleagues and friends and written about a little but never backed up with the kind of research Mulroy undertook on this side project; he’s been a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973. For instance: the idea that grammar helps make us human. I formulated this idea in a reverie and later dismissed it as overblown. But in his third chapter, which surveys the decline of grammar instruction in the age of medieval scholasticism and its renewal with the rise of Renaissance humanism, he gets at exactly this point. “Grammar’s dual role, preserving or reviving the appreciation of literary classics and creating new eloquence, was never illustrated more dramatically,” he writes, referring to the “flowering of vernacular literature” from Dante and Petrarch to Shakespeare. Literature helps us understand ourselves and others as people more directly than philosophy. Understanding grammar is essential to understanding literature, a point Mulroy illustrates with examples including a Shakespearean sonnet (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” in which the main clause doesn’t appear until the ninth line of the poem) and the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. When he asks his students to restate the point of that great American sentence (“When in the course of human events…” in case you were wondering), few can. For example: “‘People must have true facts to back up their thoughts on a god if they are different from the thoughts of the majority.'” Mulroy calls this “a higher kind of illiteracy,” one that, as the students can write and speak English adequately, “boils down to an ignorance of grammar.”

Third, he digs into grammar ignorance in a way that reveals just how barren of this knowledge many college students are today. Few really know what it means to conjugate a verb. Worse, few know what “verb” means. I’ve had a student tell me that the verb in a sentence is “that.” Mulroy writes that it was a watershed event in his career when he realized “that few of my students knew what I meant by ‘the verb to be.’ They thought I was referring to a word that was destined to become a verb.”

What I have found, again and again, every semester that I have taught my grammar lab, is that as students begin to find names for the parts of speech and begin to understand how words and groups of words work together to form sentences, they embrace this knowledge. As I’ve often said, it’s as though they’ve been trying to find their way in a pitch-dark room filled with furniture, bumping into tables and tripping over chairs. Suddenly, someone has put on a light, and now they have begun to pick their way through the room. They can see that the chairs are nouns, the tables verbs, the sofas participles. They can see that this seating group is a sentence, that one a fragment. They come to class eager to continue getting to know their own language.

It isn’t easy for young adults to integrate their growing understanding into their writing, however. After all, they have  been reading, speaking and writing with reasonable success for years. They were accepted into a competitive public research university. Most of them pass the lab, and they certainly leave knowing more than they did when they entered, but my colleagues in upper-level reporting and writing classes still despair at their many basic writing mistakes. As the lab winds down, I entreat the students to continue teaching themselves, to buy one of the many humorous books about grammar, such as “Woe is I” or “The Elephants of Style” or even the dated but still marvelous Strunk & White. I suspect that few do: They may mean to, but money is tight, and the idea slips ever further down their to-do lists.

Only a few journalism programs require students to study grammar. Those that do require just one grammar course at the start of the program. I believe that all journalism instructors should set aside some time to review key concepts; after all, these are students who, with few exceptions, never learned grammar in grammar school.

    • Ann Horbey
    • July 2nd, 2010

    So where do we go from here? Are we language mavens resigned to shaking our head and waiting for the four horseman to arrive? Or can we try to change the system?

  1. The subject of my very next post … Please stand by.

    • Vanessa
    • October 19th, 2010

    I will definitely have to read this book. It’s funny to me sometimes that technically, English would really be my second language, had I been born in 1873 instead if 1973. It’s amazing that we have all these rules and debates over languages, no matter which one people happen to speak. Among fluent (and beginning-level) Seneca speakers, we still debate over things like accent and intonation, depending on what generation or geographical area from where one comes. I love languages and rules.

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