Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tomorrow in Akron Legal News (Shameless Plugs, Pt. 1)

I've mentioned previously my latest writing venture, a biweekly column in the Akron Legal News. Tomorrow will be my fifth column since all this started. Since they haven't run me out yet, this seems solid enough to start blogging about without jinxing it. So I'll start posting a preview with a few links, perhaps a nut graf or two and maybe even a few snippets from the cutting room floor. Unfortunately you have to get the dead tree version of the Legal News to actually read the thing as my columns aren't being posted on the website yet.

So this week I was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's Elements of Style and some of the inevitable anti-Elements backlash from the descriptivist camp as a hook. While the descriptivist may have some points about some of the grammar "rules" contained in Elements, I'm concerned that the general reaction against prescriptive grammar has provided some of the impetus to stop teaching grammar in K-12 schools, to the detriment of students and those of us who have to read there writing attempts in college.

Nut graf:

    Conjugating verbs, learning parts of speech and diagramming sentences seem rote and pointless, especially to succeeding generations of more digitized students. But that kind of grammar instruction gives us a language to speak about language. We can teach good, clear, readable writing more easily when students understand how the parts of language work together and have a vocabulary for discussing those parts.
Some linkage. The anti-Elements rant that serves as my hook is here. The ABA Journal online post that gave me the idea and a passible claim that it is germane to a legal publication is here. The author, Geoffey Pullum is one of the lead bloggers in Language Log which a linguistics-blog-fan friend says is the biggie in the field. I'm frankly a bit leery about having used the Pullum piece as hook, even though I don't directly take it on because a) Pullum is very good and knows far more about usage than I could ever hope to and b) a survey of his posts reveals that he can be markedly unpleasant to anyone who disagrees with him.

Anyway, if you happen to get the Legal News or otherwise come across it tomorrow, give it a look.


Ryan Doringo said...

Agreed. I had to critically analyze two student papers for a class of mine recently (a 300/400 level class), and K-12 grammar skills were severely lacking.

I also recently overheard a girl in the Student Union say, "I got an "F" on that paper because I didn't use paragraph form."

Really? Are you surprised? How does one even write a college paper and hand it in without paragraphs?

As I will presumably be reading many undergraduate papers in the next two years as a TA/RA, shying away from teaching Strunk & White will only make worse a probelm I have seen throughout my college career.

k-pho said...

A couple of things:

Pullum can be a bit curmudgeonly, especially with absolutists, but I think the woman in the article you linked to had most of that coming.

Second, I'm skeptical about how much of the move away from teaching grammar is related to descriptivism. It seems to me to be of-a-piece with moves away from drilling/rote in math as well-meaning but ineffective to disastrous "if it's less boring kids will learn more" stuff from the education establishment. But that's just a guess. In any case, the grammarians and linguists I've read HATE the lack of teaching for exactly the kinds of reasons you bring up. To an extent, that's Pullum's point: S&W being the only grammar instruction many students ever see is a problem that isn't improved just by teaching less S&W.

Pho said...


The embedded link is not the only example I found of Pullum using his blog to respond to comments on other sites which I find odd. And harshing on someone for simple typos on an online post is a dick move.

I didn't exactly blame the descriptivists for the decline in grammar teaching. I agree that it's all one with rejecting practicing math facts and acknowledge that. But there's another layer. The educators abandoning traditional math/grammar work justify it with arguments along the lines of it's too hard, it's frustrating, kids don't learn it so it's not useful. Pullum argues that the strictures in Elements make people feel bad about their grammar so (it seems) they don't learn it. It's not the same argument, but the latter gives cover to the former.

It's subtle point, and a challenge to fit into my word limit. The big point of course is that not teaching grammar is a worse thing than teaching overly picky grammar. I'll bring the article round Sunday. You can see how far off the rails I went.

Elizabeth said...

While you are reading college student writing, I am witnessing the demise of grammar instruction in K-12 schools.

I am a teacher who is currently substitute teaching. Because of this, I am in different classrooms every day.

I have seen a teacher tell his students that adjectives modify nouns and other adjectives. I have seen textbooks with incorrect identifications of the parts of speech. Most students have no idea of the principles of grammar, and sadly, most teachers don't either.

We are at the point now where those students who never learned grammar are becoming teachers. And guess what? They still don't know grammar. They are passing their jumble of confused ideas on to their students.

I am a product of that education. My K-12 grammar instruction was severely lacking. Luckily, in college, I had a great English class where I learned grammar - a subject which I had previously thought to be unintelligible to me.

I've started a website about teaching grammar with sentence diagramming, and I hope that I can influence some teachers and students.


Thanks for your post,