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July 24, 2007


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Yes, it must be taught. If you go by 'how it sounds', you will sometimes be wrong.

I believe the best way to write well is to read a lot and to imitate the authors you like. OTOH I don't know if you can pick up things like dangling predicative adjuncts by reading a lot.

I think descriptive grammar should be taught, so that we can tell the difference between nouns and verbs, just like we know the difference between cells and DNA. And I think that standard English should be taught - as defined by, say, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage - so that we can write in the standard idiom.

anyway, I'm not a teacher...

I think that most usage is learned by imitation - the "difficult" usage cases are the ones which are more often misused in practice. Because we learn to hear them (even sometimes) incorrectly, we learn them incorrectly or we can't tell right away that it's wrong. Therefore, teaching focuses more on learning the "finer points". There are exceptions, of course, like learning the subjunctive - it wouldn't come up in English, so native English speakers to be taught it.

As far as I can remember, yes, I picked it up virtually by osmosis. I read a lot from the time I first learned, and wrote a lot too. Of course when I was still in the single digits I made errors in grammar and punctuation and had my work corrected, but I remember that by the time I was first presented with the concept of parsing sentences, in, I think, 9th grade, I found it as annoying as I did math (yes, I'm one of those stereotypical girls-who-hate-math), except that unlike math, I had no problem telling good from bad grammar but couldn't see any reason to dwell on picking it all apart--wasn't it obvious? I was like a musician who could write and perform songs just swell without knowing musical notation. Musical notation was a separate and unnecessary nuisance to my writing/reading process.

(And yes, I know my first sentence is perhaps a bit of a run-on.)

It must be taught. Listening to a half hour of television (with very few exceptions - "Bill Moyers' Journal" comes to mind) is guaranteed to yield migraine-inducing grammatical obscenities.

Great question! I think grammar can be taught and most definitely should be taught. My sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Howard, was a grammatical taskmaster. Yet, she was so much in love with the English language that learning from her was a real pleasure. And even though I was a voracious reader, I never would have learned sentence structure, punctuation, etc., by osmosis. No way. I read "Confessions of an Advertising Man" by David Ogilvy recently. He makes a great statement about following the "dull" rules of advertising--

"Shakespeare wrote his sonnets within a strict discipline, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet. Were his sonnets dull? Mozart wrote his sonatas within a equally rigid discipline--exposition, development, and recapitulation. Were they dull?"

In order to write well (or compose music well), we need to master the rules. If that approach was good enough for Ogilvy, Shakespeare and Mozart, it's good enough for me!

Just like you -- immersion in language, but what really nailed it down was 3 years of high-school German. (And a subsequent sentence in college, of course.)

To some extent, tho, you can just as easily ask your team members "How did you learn basketball?" Same: immersion, exposure to other players, maybe a little formal training in high school. You understand basketball, you read about it, you talk with your friends about it, you play it whenever you can. You think it's important that your children be well-grounded in the game. And you don't understand how someone could find it tedious. :-) PS I don't know anything about basketball.

I note that the swell website basbleu.com has on offer this month a book called "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences."

Jon: Yep, I read that Sister Bernadette book. Even blogged about it here (penultimate graf): http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2006/10/fear_of_words_a.html

Cards on the table from the outset - I'm a professional (in-house) copyeditor and desk editor. And I learned grammar at school, partly as a result of taking French, German and Latin (although I hated them at the time). The finer points , I mostly learned after becoming an editor.

The problem is that there are two sides to grammar. Most well-read people can (I believe) recognise good grammar when they see it, and will also notice when they see poor grammar. However, that's not the same as actually _creating_ good grammar. Taking a poorly written sentence and making it sing is a skill, and creating grammatical sentences first time is an even greater skill.

Grammar is even more important, I think, when working on documents that must be read by (a) people who are poor readers and (b) folk for whom English is not their first language. For poor readers, correct grammar is a huge plus - although it must also be simple. Without it, they will struggle to parse and understand the written word properly. For those who learned English as an extra tongue, correct grammar use is probably even more important for correct understanding.

pax et bonum

It was nice reading Ogilvy's quote about the beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets, but it misses the point to cite it: he wasn't militating for rules, but for structure. Different idioms share grammar but not style.

There's only two reasons to learn rules: to solve a problem, and to understand your unconscious motivations in order to innovate. No one really NEEDS to know grammar until they find themselves in a jam. (When I want to get my who's or whom's right, I substitute "he" and "him" to see which works. I could figure out whether I'm dealing with subjective or objective case, but I don't need to in order to solve my problem; I just need a rule, and the simplest is best.)

Grammar is the underlying framework of our lives; it's so fundamental that I feel certain that someday we will be able to detect physical differences in the neuronal structure of our brains that reflect it. As an English speaker, I want to know what action is taking place before I know who it's happening to; Germans have to be content to be introduced to all the participants and the color of their underwear before they find out if they're fighting, dancing, or sitting in blissful ignorance of each other on opposite sides of the galaxy. If I spoke some Japanese I'm sure I could get a handle on why they always seem to occupy such clearly defined space. If I had the opportunity to change one thing in my life, it would be to grow up in a bilingual household; I am partial to English (I feel sad for those who have to read Shakespeare in translation), but anything else would do for a second language; the point is to have a brain wired to accommodate grammatical difference.

So I side with NK (and by the way there's not a word that needs editing in your post, it's excellent; please stop thinking about it): no expert speaker needs training in grammar. Her analogy to music is close to a perfect one. Irving Berlin refused to learn musical notation, and his publisher was forced to assign a transcriber to tediously watch him play until he could reproduce the music to Berlin's satisfaction. I have no doubt that his intransigence was from fear, not laziness. The better you are, the more the rules get in your way.


Please, would you mind to explain the meaning of the expression puzzling over?
Thanks a lot and congratulations for your blog.


Regina Araujo

"In order to write well (or compose music well), we need to master the rules. If that approach was good enough for Ogilvy, Shakespeare and Mozart, it's good enough for me!"

While Shakespeare might have been taught the rules of writing sonnets, he was never formally taught grammar - English grammar was not taught in school until the 1800s.

Ooh my favourite subject.

It depends what side of the "Grammar" fence you identify more with. Are you a Systemic Functional Grammarian (ie grammar is about choosing a word pattern which conveys a meaning) or are you a rules-based grammarian?

I need to give this some real thought at get back to you, but essentially (a) yes, children will absorb the patterns from everyday reading/listening which they will then use to "make meaning", but (b)to meet the socially acceptable written requirements of the day they will have to be taught specific rules.

These rules have changed, slowly, over the evolution of the English language and will continue to do so.

Regina: "To puzzle over" something is to think hard about it, turn it around in one's mind, and try to solve it, as one would try to solve a mathematical puzzle or a mystery. The word "puzzle" seems to come from "pose," which probably has a Portuguese cognate (sorry, that isn't one of my languages): to pose a question, to pose a problem. In Spanish, "to puzzle something out" is descifrar.

Everyone: Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! Keep 'em coming...

What a wonderful topic! Thank you so much for allowing us to think and respond. And thanks to Brad for the quotation from David Ogilvy!

When I was about 8 years old, my sister (who was in college) screamed at my parents, saying that I would never read anything except comic books and Nancy Drew's. However, I had an insightful 6th Grade teacher who taught us how to organize our thoughts; a persnickety 8th Grade teacher (Miss Fusselman) who taught us to parse sentences; and an enlightened Advanced Comp teacher in High School (Mrs. Marshall) who taught us to drill down to the core idea. And along the way, I studied Spanish and Italian, which allowed me to understand how language was actually formed. Then I studied Syntactic Structures (Chomsky) in college, and life was never the same; I was able to graduate from college with a customized degree, focused on English as a language.

After entering the working world (management of design practices), I discovered "What's the Usage?" — my favorite reference book. I especially liked the "emergency punctuation kit" which became one of the tests that I used for secretarial applicants. And now I'm addicted to Ben Yagoda, who provides practical usage as well as rational acceptance of the changes in language.

But back to the question. I find that people — and especially children — pick up language from their everyday resources. If the people around them use "proper" grammar, then they are likely to do so as well. My now-26-year-old-niece has a reading disability and dislikes writing, but she is a wonderful storyteller and uses the subjunctive properly every single time. On the other hand, I was listening to a blues album on a long driving trip, and after hearing one incorrect phrase sung over and over, it was easy to understand how inconsistencies are absorbed into our sponge-like brains.

One of the biggest problems I've encountered -- with children and adults -- is correct use of pronouns. We can hear the difference between "we" and "us," but not I/me, he/him, she/her. So when I'm with my friends' children, I've been working with them to try the substitution method (like Dave Blake), only using we/us as the example. And I've found that when they learn a rule at the moment of usage, they can retain it.

So ... there is hope. Even in the face of change....

I seemed to have absorbed grammar. I can't recall ever studying except when diagramming sentences (which I found tedious) in 8th grade. I may not use absolutely correct grammar in my everyday world, but I do know bad grammar when I see it, or use it (and I feel a little bad about it). It's ok, I'm from Charleston, I know what I'm doing.

It's far more grating to my sensibilities to see a word or idiom misused or the wrong word used; even worse when the abuser is attempting to seem smart.

Just wondering, do other languages suffer the ravages of bad grammar and does it feel like fingernails-across-sandpaper to those proper users?

I think it would be useful to make some distinctions here, such as the one between learning to use grammar and learning to analyze it. Children learn to use grammar before they start reading. Reading presupposes the implicit knowledge that enables speech, and that is grammar. Learning to analyze grammar is a different matter, learning to write well is another (though the ability to analyze grammar helps with this), and learning certain arbitrary rules about what is "correct" is yet another, and often has nothing to do with good writing.

Christopher: I agree that it would be more helpful to speak of learning the rules of "usage" rather than of "grammar." My own bias comes from my background as a journalist and business writer, where clarity is the paramount objective and shared rules of usage are the means toward that end. (Certainly in journalism, anyway. Business writing could benefit from more scrupulous attention to rules of usage, in my opinion.)

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