15th July, 2013
We all have our little idiosyncrasies, those quirky little habits, beliefs or passions that stand out to others, yet make up the sum of who we are. For some it might be nurturing their artistic side by doodling while on the phone, for others it might be keeping safe by avoiding cracks in the footpath. For me, it’s grammar. Not just correcting grammar in other people’s speech, but giving a detailed explanation for their mistake. You didn’t sleep good, you slept well. Good is an adjective. Well is an adverb.
Grammar is my passion. It is also what I do every day as part of my work. So perhaps you could call this, as the French would, “une déformation professionnelle”. My kids just roll their eyes, shake their heads and largely ignore it. But I know I am not alone in my quest for a well-constructed sentence and the proper use of words. Grammar, it seems, is becoming increasingly fashionable and a hot topic of conversation around the dinner table.
Over the years, I have collected a number of misconceptions about grammar (another quirky habit of mine), around the professional arena, the classroom and the social scene. I have listed five of them below.
Misconception 1: Good grammar is a measure of intelligence
In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Kyle Wiens states he will only hire people who use good grammar, because good grammar is a sign of credibility, attention to detail and learning ability. He argues that if it takes someone 20 years to notice the difference between “its” and “it’s”, that person’s learning curve (and by extension IQ) is not one a prospective employer would be comfortable with. Whilst grammar can indeed be a way of showing people you’re intelligent (at least in an academic sense), it does not account for minority groups such as people who suffer from dyslexia that are likely to provide a text riddled with typographical errors; nor does it account for non-native English learners. In other words, very intelligent people may be misconceived as being lazy or obtuse because they grew up in a community that did not provide them with opportunities to learn English grammar. So is grammar a measure of intelligence? I think not. Grammar is merely a product of one’s education and upbringing.
Misconception 2: Grammar is innate and does not need to be taught in schools
Akin to Chomsky’s “innateness” theory of language acquisition, Australia has put immersion at the centre of its language pedagogy for more than four decades, believing that students will pick up language skills from their environment alone. The assumption is that grammar is hard-wired to the brain and that learning happens by osmosis through listening, speaking and reading, making the explicit teaching of grammar redundant. However, if children learn their mother tongue by simple imitation through a succession of trials and errors, what happens once their role models no longer have a formal understanding of the fundamental principles of English? The answer to that is plain to see: truncated messages littered with grammatical errors and poor communication. The solution? Getting back to basics. It is important for young Australians to receive an English grammar foundation at school. There is really no excuse for not teaching the code that gives access to a personal voice.
Misconception 3: Grammar preserves the language but suppresses communication
For years, Australia has largely deplored the teaching of English grammar in schools, asserting that children should be allowed to express themselves freely. The argument is that writing is a top-down process starting with rhetorical strategies such as invention, research, arrangement and drafting, rather than a bottom-up process which includes grammar rules as basics and moves from words, to sentences, to paragraphs. Whilst the top-down process of writing makes sense, the idea that worrying about grammar stifles one’s creativity doesn’t. Grammar is a set of standards that ensure there is a regularity to the order in which we use words, how those words change form and combine with each other to make sentences. As such, we rely on grammar whether or not we are cognisant of it. Grammar doesn’t suppress communication; grammar is foundational to good expression at all levels.
Misconception 4: Grammar is for grammarians only
The misapprehension that grammar is for the elite is a common one. Grammarians are largely perceived as a minority group made up of “frigid and dehumanised pedants” (Edward Sapir, “The Grammarian and His Language.” American Mercury, 1924) holding the hammer that pounds correctness into our heads. It ensues that grammar is not easily accessible. But the ideal role of grammar in education is a very different one. Back in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, a grammarian was merely a language teacher or facilitator. The most famous Roman grammarian was Aelius Donatus (4th century AC), whose initial work the “Ars Minor” discussed the eight parts of speech. His subsequent handbook, the “Ars Grammatica”, also covers faults of style such as barbarisms (slang) and solecisms (error or deviation from the conventional order of words). Simply put, Donatus’ work is a record of language systems. In other words, grammar is the language that allows us to talk about language, which is essential for good communication to become accessible to all. It gives us the terminology to discuss sentences easily, which parts don’t fit together and which parts should be moved around. As such, grammar is not an elitist pastime at all, but an empowering and liberating tool for the masses.
Misconception 5: Grammar is hard to teach
I recently asked my children (aged 16, 14 and 9) what English grammar meant to them. All three immediately reduced the concept down to one word: boring! There is no doubt that compared to English literature or science, grammar is indeed a dry subject. Does that make it hard to teach? To some degree, perhaps. However, there are ways to transform dry and inaccessible subjects into enjoyable, interactive experiences that motivate and engage students in the learning process. In that respect, game-based learning is quickly becoming a popular trend in the delivery of curricula. Why? Because online games do not require rote memorisation but tap into the primal cues of the imagination and draw us into a virtual environment that feels familiar, desirable and exciting. Naturally, not all games have educational value. But good games have in common certain characteristics, including the presence of rules, predefined objectives, competitive elements and the ability to deliver content that connects with each learner’s individual skill, level and pace. A good grammar game has the power to unlock your students’ mind and release a plethora of possibilities.
I’d love to know, what misconceptions do you hear about grammar? And are there any challenges or objections you commonly face, either in the classroom or out?