Where do we go from here, fellow grammar nerds?

After reading my posts on David Mulroy’s book “The War Against Grammar,” my friend and colleague Ann Marie Horbey asked:

“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?”

Like Mulroy, I would love to see formal grammar instruction return to grammar school — ahem. But this seems an unlikely prospect given the resistance that has built up over the years.  Mulroy pegs the National Council of Teachers of English as the heart of this resistance although, as he notes, it has a subgroup called The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. The Assembly has been holding annual meetings since 1990 and has both a journal and a substantial website. I am joining the assembly and will familiarize myself with its positions and personnel; perhaps this is the best vehicle for advocacy.

One can certainly advocate for change at the local level by speaking to local school boards and officials.

Anyone else have ideas — or better yet, a successful strategy?

* “Language mavens” is a much nicer term than “grammar nerds,” I know, and yet I find the self-deprecation of the latter irresistible. When I refer to myself thus to my students, they respond with affection. I believe that they generally respect me and that the combination of respect and affection helps them see me as a role model. So I’ll stick with “grammar nerd”; I hope none of you language mavens out there are offended.

    • Ann Horbey
    • July 11th, 2010

    The challenge of re-instituting grammar instruction is that we must change educational culture. For some fifty years, the prevailing theory has been that grammar instruction restricts creativity. The result: The people who teach writing never learned grammar themselves, and thus fear it. How do we break the cycle of loathing?

    • mboyle247
    • July 12th, 2010

    I have a love/hate relationship with grammar. As a student, I found it to be very limiting and restrictive. While it gives my writing structure and, in essence, allows people to understand what I’m talking about, I get hung up on grammar usage and then I forget what I’m writing about. I’m almost paralyzed by it. On the other hand, without grammar, I’m lost. I get frustrated by the e-mails I receive at work because they often contain misspellings and virtually no comma-usage whatsoever from major organizations and companies. I feel as though people who work for major companies forfeit their credibility and integrity when they can’t demonstrate where to place a comma or even an apostrophe. Unfortunately, grammar is stigmatized, in a way. Perhaps it’s because it touches on people’s insecurities as intellectual beings? I know that I feel insecure every time I misuse a term or put commas in the wrong places.

    • Ann Horbey
    • July 13th, 2010


    I suspect you find grammar limiting because you learned it so late in your academic career. Once you internalize the rules of grammar, you’ll find yourself writing more freely–and you’ll question comma placement and pronoun usage in the revision process.

    But you made an excellent point: A lack of grammar can be limiting to the reader as well as to the writer. If the writer doesn’t take the time to learn or edit his grammar, then it damages his ethos–how can the reader trust anything he says if he can’t bother to use a comma correctly?–and it may also inhibit the reader’s understanding. This is certainly true for published texts: I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve stopped reading because the author was just plain sloppy.

    So, if grammar makes even intellectuals insecure, isn’t that all the more reason to understand it?

      • Susan Wozniak
      • May 3rd, 2011

      I just read your reply to Morgan in which you said to her that she finds grammar challenging because she learned it so late. I teach English and developmental English at a community college. My students can neither read nor write on the college level.

      I was educated at Catholic schools where we learned to diagram sentences. My now adult children attended a Montessori elementary school where they were taught to analyze sentences using the Montessori method.

      My colleagues and I feel that were schools to return to the Reed-Kellogg method of sentence diagramming or to adopt the Montessori method, students would not only write more proficiently but would read with greater comprehension. I brought this up on an internet forum and was almost crucified.

      We began diagramming in the third grade, which is the same level that Montessori schools teach their method of analysis. We stopped, perhaps, as early as the sixth grade but definitely by the eighth grade.

    • mboyle247
    • July 13th, 2010

    People should take the time to understand it, but “fear” is extremely powerful and people are often paralyzed by it. Sometimes, people’s insecurities trump logic, which is unfortunate but it happens.

    • Ann Horbey
    • July 14th, 2010

    That’s precisely why we should teach grammar to children–they’re too young to feel inhibited by what they don’t know.

    • Nancy Traver
    • August 3rd, 2010

    In my city, Evanston, IL, grammar is being taught to elementary school and middle school students. My children, now 12 and 14, have often brought home worksheets and textbooks about grammar. For example, my son had a worksheet recently that required him to identify the subject and predicate in each sentence.

    I teach grammar on the college level to journalism students. I recently had the experience of editing one of my student’s stories. This student had also been studying grammar with me all semester. While preparing for her final exam, we had just been reviewing punctuation and subject-pronoun agreement. And yet her story was riddled with errors in these two areas. I couldn’t resist. I turned to her and said, “We JUST went over this.” (I couldn’t help it, the words just burbled out of my mouth.)

    There was a long moment while she looked at me, got a dazed look on her face, and then said, “Oh yeah.” I guess this is my biggest problem: I teach grammar all semester to students who then turn around and take reporting and writing classes with me, and they make errors in grammar. This shows me that they are not integrating their grammar instruction into their writing.

    I think the only way they can learn to do this is with practice. In other words, they need to be reminded — over and over — what the rules are. How do we learn? Often, we learn through repetition.

    If you are a parent, your children ask you to read the same books over and over to them. They also watched the same videos over and over. Some educators would say they are creating “pathways in the brain.” In other words, they’re learning.

    The problem with all this, however, is that students have teachers in journalism and English literature who themselves are not comfortable with grammar. I can’t tell you the numbers of instructors I’ve met over the years who say, “Oh, I can’t teach grammar. I don’t know it.” Too often, they are right. I see the stories they have already supposedly edited; the stories are loaded with errors they failed to correct.

    So perhaps they need to be GIVEN grammar quizzes that they can then give to their students. They also need to be given the correct answers and the reasons behind why this or that answer is correct. This might be the best way of reminding students abut the rules of grammar. And gee whiz, the teachers might learn something as well!

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