A Case For Grammar

This blog post is a little off my usual path: I typically stick to morsels of maths and anecdotes from my classroom. However, a post on Facebook and Twitter caught my attention this morning because of the flurry of supportive comments that followed it. The post is this one from Michael Rosen, linking to his latest blog post about the requirements of teaching grammar:

To try and pre-emptively subdue some of the storms that can arise, let me be clear about the position I’m writing from: I’m a mathematician / maths teacher (another long-running discussion involved in adopting those labels for myself..). I’ve never taught 10 year olds. I know nothing about creative writing. However, I am fascinated by grammar and languages.

The Argument

Having read further posts and this piece in the Guardian, also by Michael Rosen, I now better appreciate the point that he is making: schools are being given very prescriptive guidelines about grammatical points and, not only must pupils understand the terminology, but it appears that the quality of their writing will, in part, be judged on the variety of constructions that it contains. With the best intentions in the world, shoe-horning a fronted adverbial into writing (as I think I have succeeded in doing here) has nothing to do with creativity and the ability to express oneself. Even as one devoid of literary creativity, I can appreciate the point that just shoving in constructions to ‘show off’ can be counter-productive to producing interesting writing. It reminds me of my GCSE Spanish written paper: the aim of the game there was to demonstrate my ability to use as many grammatical structures as possible. What did I do? I memorised a sentence that included an imperfect subjunctive (and, weirdly, I still remember it to this day)…

Si no hubiera comido ese pescado, no me habría enfermado.

Had I not eaten the fish, I wouldn’t have become ill. Whack that in to your writing and you’re well on track for an A*. I almost certainly couldn’t have adapted it to other situations, let alone use it in the speaking exam.

So far, I completely agree with Michael, as best I understand the situation: the curriculum-listed grammatical rules are overbearing (to the point of defying convention in some cases) and the insistence on their inclusion in written work is a poor measure of ‘good writing’.

The Digressions

Continuing the discussion a little further in a brief exchange of Tweets, Michael and I raised a few views that I think are worth their own air time.

Classification

classifying

As I stated from the outset, I have no experience of teaching 10 year olds. The phrases ‘fronted adverbial’ and ‘subordinate clause’ seem unnecessarily advanced for that age – I don’t think I met subordinate clauses until Year 9, and I had never heard of fronted adverbials prior to this debate! However, the idea of following a classification, based (hopefully) on precise definitions, is an important abstract skill. That classifications can overlap is also important to recognise. As maths teachers we are familiar with how students are uncomfortable with statements such as “a square is a rectangle”. If it meets the criteria, then it gains the label. Of course, all of these arguments boil down to the definition of the term involved, and I’m under no illusion that grammatical terms must be incredibly difficult to specify to the same precision as mathematical definitions.

  • Is Guildford a city?
  • Is a platypus a mammal?
  • How can 141ft Mount Wycheproof be classed as a mountain?

I’ve never thought too deeply around this issue, but I’m intrigued to know how disciplines other than mathematics formalise their definitions.

Purity

I likened my appreciation for grammar to my appreciation for pure mathematics. I can (and did for four years!) study mathematics from a wholly ‘pure’ point of view, without any care for whether or not it has found applications in ‘the real world’. Pure mathematics, to me, is all about formalism and abstraction. Group theory, for example, abstracts the essence of a huge variety of seemingly disparate mathematical operations. Whether group theory itself has practical applications (I believe it does in physics and chemistry) is of no concern to me. The introduction to Ian Stewart’s Concepts of Modern Mathematics cites a number of examples of applied maths catching up approximately one century after developments in pure mathematics.

Years ago, I read a neat little book called Logic, by Wilfrid Hodges. As someone who had grown up with little appreciation for literature, and even less grasp of how to produce a piece of creative writing, a formal deconstruction of sentences and language was incredibly appealing. I had also been learning computer programming around the same time and appreciated how a computer would need that kind of logic to approach understanding human languages. I was fascinated how (structural) ambiguity could be represented by a kind of tree diagram:

3_17

How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know. (Groucho Marx, image source.)

Languages and Linguistics

I think it is an unarguable truth that learning other languages necessitates an understanding of the principles of grammar. (From a mathematical perspective, this is the abstraction and terminology that allows us to see commonalities and differences in languages’ structures, and that allows us to check if what we are writing is grammatically correct.) I love learning how other languages ‘tick’: Spanish has a huge number of tenses (not least of all the imperfect subjunctive I threw in earlier); German has a wonderful art of incorporating adjectival phrases and nesting clauses to a depth paralleling Inception; in Catalan you can uncover patterns behind words that have morphed from French to Spanish; Chinese has almost no verb conjugation or number/gender agreement.

For me, the culmination of this study in abstraction is the Linguistics Olympiad. It’s rare that I can find a few students as interested as I am, but a couple of years ago I did get a few to take part!

Etymology

In Year 9, we began our study of Chaucer with, I think, part of the prologue of the Canterbury Tales and then the Miller’s Tale. I was fascinated by the Middle English and how we were given some insight into making sense of it. I hadn’t even heard the word ‘etymology’ before, but I was hooked.

Do you know the origin of the word helicopter? Here’s a strange-looking clue:

helix   pterosaur

The Short Story

I would agree with Michael: drafting a curriculum of overzealous grammatical rules and forcing their use in compositions for them to be deemed ‘good’ is wholly inappropriate for creative writing.

I would disagree with Michael: there is a beauty (and purpose) in the study of grammar and languages from a point of view of abstraction, and it is one that captivated my own interest in English at a time when I felt lost in the creative side of reading and writing. At what age and rate to introduce this formalism, I cannot say.

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One thought on “A Case For Grammar

  1. Your problem here is that you’ve unified under the heading ‘grammar’ several things. So, first off: all languages have grammar or they wouldn’t be languages, they would be gibberish. Second to that, comes the problem of describing how languages are grammatical. One method is to pretend – and it is a pretence – that you can describe it purely and only systemically, i.e. deriving its ‘rules’ or ‘conventions’ from how it appears on the page. In actual fact, you never can, you have to take on some degree of what the words and sequences of words mean. However, what seems to happen with most ‘school grammar’ is that the terminology then does its damnedest to ignore the fact that the terminology was in part derived from meaning. Yet, even so, some of the terminology does include a sense of meaning: so compare ‘determiner’ with ‘possessive’. ‘Determiner’ is a class of words deemed to determine the noun that follows it. However, you can only tell if it’s a determiner if you know what it means. The term, though, doesn’t include any sense of what these determiners are for, what is their function beyond some self-serving, self-referential process of ‘determining’. Now with ‘possessive’ at least that links to the fact that humans possess things and want or need to mark this fact. It’s a different order of naming.

    Meanwhile, the reason why there is so much fuss going on about ‘fronted adverbials’ and ‘subordinating conjunctions’ is because FAs is a term that has only just been invented and/or popularised. I suspect it’s been popularised now in order to replace another term that was extremely popular amongst examiners and ‘grammar’ enforcers ‘connectives’. This term has now been banned so they needed another one to replace it. However, as I have pointed out, it overlaps with ‘subordinate clauses’. Go and talk to some ten year olds and try to explain overlapping terminology in about 20 minutes – remember they’ve got hundreds of other things to do too. Meanwhile, some grammarians don’t think that subordinate conjunctions exist. Try the professor at Edinburgh for example. His line is that a prepositions do the same job – according to this kind of grammar. My view is that all this is pretend science. Linguistics cannot and never will reach the kind of exactitude of science because it is essentially a method of trying to describe human behaviour. If psychology is not able to describe and explain all human behaviour why should grammarians be able to explain all grammar. I suggest that a good deal of it is starting from the wrong place. It should start from the same place as ‘possessive’ started from, trying to describe and explain system, meaning and function-in-life.

    The appropriate activity to be doing this in school is investigation. Taking terms that grammarians and linguists have come up with, NOT treating them as if they are like items on the periodic table, but fuzzy attempts to tie down the un-tie-able – and all the more fascinating for that reason.

    re other languages. In actual fact, this is the easiest way to learn ‘grammar’ so that you can use the fact that languages say similar things in different ways, as the route to the abstraction that lies behind the surface of language. In fact, it is much easier to ‘do grammar’ in that context, rather than doing it as a preparation for it.

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