Posts Tagged ‘ David Mulroy ’

Constructing a grammar course for journalism undergraduates

Commenters on my previous post discussed the fear that contemplating grammar induces in adults who never learned it in grammar school.  Those of us stuck with the results of K-12’s failure to teach grammar face these questions: What are the most effective ways to teach grammar to college students? What can we hope for?

The first principle to establish with our students is the value of learning grammar. Some of us — those who teach in journalism schools, at least — have the advantage of teaching students who already see themselves as writers, or at least as people to whom writing is important. When I say that on the first day of grammar class, it’s as though the students suddenly sit up straighter. They like that idea and embrace it eagerly.

Taking on that label–“writer”– enables them to move to the next step: identifying what writers need to do to improve. We are writers; words are our tools. We use them to construct sentences, and we use our sentences to build longer pieces of writing. We want our writing to be sturdy. Knowing the names of our tools and what each is used for — the right tool for the job! — helps us write clearly and with control.

University of Missouri J-School Professor Emeritus Don Ranly makes a compelling argument along these lines in his limited-edition set of videotapes called “Ranly on Grammar,” of which I have a treasured copy. He says — and I’m paraphrasing — Why shouldn’t we get grammar and syntax and punctuation right? And why shouldn’t we call parts of speech by their right names? Would you trust a surgeon who asked an assistant in the operating room: “Hand me that sharp, pointy thing that I use for cutting, would you? I used to know what it was called, but I’ve forgotten.” Continue reading

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.

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.” Continue reading

David Mulroy, grammar hero, debunker of anti-grammarian myths

One of the great joys of reading is finding a writer who expresses one’s cherished beliefs, one who writes about them with such meticulous authority that one wants to jump from one’s chair, run into the street brandishing the book, and shout, “See? See?”

That’s how I feel about “The War Against Grammar” by David Mulroy.

Mulroy, who has taught classics at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973, published this slim volume seven years ago. In it, he debunks the many myths used in the past few decades to all but eliminate the teaching of grammar in America’s public schools. (Used by whom? The main culprit, according to Mulroy, is the National Council of Teachers of English, which sets standards for English instruction from kindergarten through college.)

Mulroy outlines the history of grammar instruction, starting with its place of high honor among the Greeks, who named it first among the seven liberal arts.

Wait a minute. I thought the liberal arts, as in a “liberal-arts education” at a “liberal-arts college,” were subjects in the humanities and the sciences: psychology, French literature, biology and so on. But no! The seven liberal arts handed down from antiquity are grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmony [music] and astronomy. How come I didn’t know this? Continue reading

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