A long answer to a short student question sheds light on some age-old debates

Why teach grammar, anyway?  

A long answer to a short student question sheds light on some age-old debates

As my spring 2020 semester winded down, I thought about my favorite student questions. Naturally, my thoughts gravitated towards those questions that forced me to rethink how I was teaching.

This is the one that comes to mind. On an online quiz on grammar and syntax, one of my students asked this question: “If the rules of grammar and language keep changing over time, why do I use them at all?”

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I had gotten versions of this question before, but this is the first time I had been asked it in an online format. In the onsite classroom, there are many ways for me to approach it. But now, in the online classroom, I found myself deprived of many of the tools (humor, a de-escalating smile, the ability to have a constructive back-and-forth) that usually make the resulting lesson possible. All I had was the space in front of me, the comment section on a student quiz.
So, I made a decision. I was not going to flinch. I was going to dive in. I started writing. Here is what I wrote (with some modifications, in order to make the response more generally useful):

Hi _________,

Thank you so much for your response. I wanted to take some time to slow down and address your question about why we bother with grammar at all. It is easily one of my favorite questions ever, because it speaks to why we are even here.

In my mind, there is no use to emphasizing grammar simply for the sake of grammar. I think that “grammar police” (or whatever term we would like to use) often lost touch with the fact that—as you mention—grammar and spelling change over time. After all, it is only within the last 10 years or so that “donut” has become a correct spelling. In the past, anything other than “doughnut” was a misspelling!

Any attempt to focus on grammar should be based on (1) cutting down on sentence constructions that can be confusing or easily misunderstood or (2) focusing on sentences in which revising grammar would naturally lead to an improvement in thought.

I will write about the first one for now. There are many sentences that are confusing simply because of the grammar. For example, imagine you were buying a house from me and we had the following sentence in the contract: “If there is a dispute between the buyer and seller about whether a certain improvement is necessary, it is that person’s job to fix it before closing.” Now, imagine we both sign it and then there is a $5,000 item that needed to be fixed. We might fight a lot about who “that person” refers to, in the second clause. You (the buyer) might argue that it refers to me; I (the seller) would probably argue that it refers to you. We can only have this argument because the sentence itself is an ungrammatical construction known as a vague antecedent (when it’s unclear what a certain word or phrase refers to). Companies have lost millions of dollars because a sentence was written incorrectly and is therefore open to interpretation! When a sentence has wiggle room like that, readers will usually interpret it in whatever was is to their own advantage.

The second one is a little more complicated. Imagine seeing a paper that went like this: “I needed to work on my paper, I knew that I would have plans the upcoming weekend, I felt like I owed it to myself to take a break, I wanted to avoid burnout.” Now, this is a series of comma splices (a grammatical error we talked about in class). If I went through the process of fixing each comma splice, I might end up with something like this: “I needed to work on my paper now, because I knew that I would have plans this upcoming weekend. I had been working the entire week and felt like I owed it to myself to take a break. Otherwise, I would be too burned out the following week. Fixing the comma splices forces me (1) to put in a series of transitional words and conjunctions (like “because” and “otherwise”) and (2) to connect my thought process by filling in the gaps between the original clauses. I actually made my thought process stronger because I no longer let the individual clauses stand on their own without qualification. Grammar revision produced an improvement in content!

Best, Prof. G

I stopped and look at what I had created, a 5-paragraph response to a 1-sentence quiz question. I found myself wondering if the student would read the whole response, or if the sheer length would produce an immediate TLDR response. But I also feared that further revision would make it longer, not shorter. I could have written several more pages. I pressed “Submit.”

I am sharing this letter, because I feel that it—even if there are certainly revisions that could be made and examples that could be switched out for others—represents the kind of work we can do in our online comments. The student asked about one of the organizing principles for the week’s content, and I attempted to respond in a way that was detailed and (hopefully) not defensive. If we are going to insist on grammar and syntax, then I think we need to be willing to directly explain why we are doing it. And we need to think beyond the rigidity of an answer like “Because these are the rules of grammar.”

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