California English Journal

 
 

Table of Contents

Spring 1998

A Grammar for the Year 2000?
- Michael Thompson

Teaching Grammar...Why Bother?
- Steven Krashen

I Am Begging You
- Steve Tollefson

From Prescriptive Grammar to Problem-Posing:
An Alternative to Grammar Instruction
- Gregory Shafer

Grammar and Critical Thinking
- R. A. Buck

Grammar and Usage as Part of the Writing
Process: The Annotated Local Revision
- Kathryn Mincey

The Grammar of Expletive Constructions
- Paul Lindholdt

Grammar Crimes? Do the Time
- Carole LeCren

An Old But Hot Issue in Language Construction
- Grammar or Communication?

- Toshiko Sugino

California English - Spring 98

 

Grammar Study for Our Times
- Diana Dreyer

If You Must Teach Traditional English Grammar,
Make it Short and Sweet

- Ron Featheringill   

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I Am Begging* You
 - Steve Tollefson

I was a freshman at Lewis and Clark Junior High School in Billings, Montana in 1963. I vividly recall working on sentence diagramming in my English class.

(*"Begging": present progressive of the verb "to beg." The present progressive tense indicates an action that is going on at the moment, or is continuous. Often, the effect is to make the statement more immediate than simple present. In the above," I beg you" would have also worked, but wouldn't have conveyed quite the same sense of urgency.)

The diagrams looked to me like the maps of dark, forbidding cities I had never been to and would always remain lost in-streets jutting here and there at odd angles, for no apparent reason, dangerous looking corners around which lurked things like prepositional phrases that would surely do you in, and sometimes a cross-street (or dead end-I couldn't tell which). The next year, I was thrilled to be able to talk my way into Honors English, where you read books and wrote papers, and put grammar behind you. The irony is that today I spend many of my waking hours (and some sleeping hours, I'm afraid) talking about grammar. My own foundation in writing was built through osmosis: reading and writing. I didn't really learn "grammar" until I started teaching writing. But I am, I believe, a vastly better writer than I was (I didn't say good, I said vastly better) because I know something about grammar: the concept, for instance, of parallel structure and its glories or the clever uses of parentheses and dashes (see the sentence in the middle of this paragraph).

The problem with diagramming-which we can use as a symbol for all grammar lessons in vitro rather than in vivo-is that the form was more important than the content, that a phrase had to go at an angle and that a clause was parallel, but down a little bit (or whatever-I honestly didn't get it). The meaning of the sentence and its parts was secondary.

Osmosis may work, as it did for me, through grade school and high school, but by the time students reach university freshman status, we simply no longer have time to let things ooze through a semi-permeable membrane at their own molecular pace. If there are grammar problems that recur in student papers, we've got to tackle them directly, because ain't nobody gonna put up with 'em in other classes. That's an immediate concern. The longer-term concern is that grammar just needs to be good, and can do wonderful things for us.

So the best place to start to teach grammar is by demonstrating what its presence does for us, rather than what its absence does to us. At its most basic, grammar allows us to communicate, allows the ideas to be said or written at all. But more important for students should be the notion that grammar (and by that I also mean sentence structure, diction, and so on) enhances meaning, allows it to shine. What makes the following sentences and phrases memorable?

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray; you wore blue. ( Rick in Casablanca)

When love is gone, there's always justice. When justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi, Mom. (Laurie Anderson)

And the Holy Spirit o'er the bent wrold broods / with ah! bright wings! (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me. (Emily Dickinson)

Call me Ishmael. (Melville)

And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Martin Luther King)

It's not just the ideas, of course, that make these lines rise above the mass. It's the way they're put together: the subjects, verbs, parallel structures, semi-colons, modifiers.

I know that in the past studies have shown that teaching grammar in isolation (I assume that means drills, lists of sentences, and so on) does not improve students' grammar or make them better writers. Teaching grammar and marking grammar became a bad thing: Preemptive strikes. Destroy the paper in order to save it. And that led to negative reinforcement. "Good" ended up meaning "no errors" rather than "clever" or "nicely phrased," or "thoughtful." But but the revelation about teaching grammar in isolation also meant that teachers threw out the baby with the dangling modifiers. And so we've put grammar back in, but there are still worries. I know that 6th grade teachers teach fragments, 12th grade teachers still teach fragments-and of course, I continue the fine tradition of teaching fragments. Some take this to mean that teaching fragments (or any other grammatical gimcrack) is a useless endeavor-students don't get it, so don't bother.

But picture, if you will, a world in which teachers in k-12 didn't teach such things. Where would that leave me in my College Writing class at Berkeley? With having to explain to students for the first time what a fragment is? (And I would do it, because I would have to.) My students often feign (or profess, as the case may be) ignorance about such matters, but I am always confident that buried somewhere in their synapses is a tribal memory of some kind, perhaps from Mr. Schultz in the 7th grade, about some of that grammar. I don't have to start completely fresh. I just have to build, to help students recover those memories. Sometimes those memories may be false ones, but that's OK in this case. We can pretend they're real and build on them.

People sometimes ask me whether students can actually improve their writing, their grammar, in fifteen weeks, our semester. Sometimes I myself wonder. Then I see the evidence all around me. As I write this, I am also reading end-of-semester portfolios, in which students talk about finally mastering thesis, or fragments, or semi-colons. And their papers usually prove their point.

As an example, let me dwell on one of my favorites: dangling modifiers. Ninety percent of these do not actually create misunderstandings in sentences, e.g., "Walking across the campus eating my lunch, the clock tower struck one." We read right through them, unless we are English teachers with nothing better to do than to find them. On the other hand, avoiding them is not only good table manners, but also prevents the rare catastrophe in which a dangling modifier truly throws the reader off: "After waiting half an hour, a sales representative finally emerged from the back room." It wasn't the sales rep who waited half an hour; it was I (me?). But dangling modifiers can't always be taught by assimilation. Ya gotta actually look at some. I have had a student this semester who was driven nearly crazy by seeing "d. mod" in the margins of his paper-but explanation after explanation gradually began to sink in, until "d. mod" on his papers was as rare as a black-footed ferret (They're pretty rare).

I propose, then, that perhaps teaching grammar in earlier years doesn't have an immediate visible effect, that perhaps osmosis is the truest way. But I also think that "grammar acquisition" may be like language acquisition: our minds are programmed to do it at a certain time. That time may not be in grade school, or middle school, or high school. But I see clear evidence that the concepts and ideas of grammar are assimilable for freshmen in college. It does indeed work in fifteen weeks (OK, we don't have a 100% success rate yet, but then it's not rocket science-wait, they don't have 100% success rate either).

I take my cue from Harry Truman: "The buck stops here." I can't pass the buck. But at the same time, I realize that grammar isn't something you learn in the 5th or 9th or 12th grades. It's a process that (to the horror of many people, I'm sure) does not end. We all need to teach grammar all the time (I tell that to faculty in other departments and teaching assistants for upper division courses)-if you assign papers, then you're responsible for commenting on/teaching the grammar, not just the content. Otherwise you might just as well ask for a list, rather than a paper. Because it's all connected.

So, my point is really a plea. I am begging you. Teach grammar-teach it any way you want to, short of carving it into students' flesh a la Kafka's The Penal Colony. Do try to make it enjoyable. I suspect that students find it onerous because subconsciously many teachers feel that way about it, too. Teach grammar, please, because it gives me something to work with. Don't be distressed that ablative absolutes as a concept are not sinking in (just kidding!), just keep rolling that boulder up the hill. It'll roll down again, but the next Sisyphus will push it up again. And eventually it will stay (so much for Greek myths), even if it wobbles from time to time. But if you don't get the boulder rolling, then I have to. And I don't have enough time to start at the bottom of the hill.

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Grammar Crimes? Do the Time!
-Carole LeCren

It was after the fifth paper and the 19th occurrence of the wrong version of "there" that I lost it. "It's a crime what these students are doing to the English language," I complained. I was tired of writing mini-grammar lessons in the margin, I was tired of students making the same mistakes over and over, I was simply tired. It was on that day six years ago that my idea for "Grammar Crimes" was born.

I made a list of the 8 most frequent mistakes (later expanded to 16) and typed them up on a handout called the "Grammar Crime Hot Sheet." The mistakes are phrased the way a ticket would be written for someone who has broken a law. Here is my current Grammar Crime Hot Sheet:

GRAMMAR CRIME HOT SHEET

If you are caught committing any of the following crimes again, you will suffer dire consequences!!!!!!

1. Failure to underline book titles.
Titles that should be underlined (or if you have a computer that will italicize) include: books, book-length poems, plays, magazines, pamphlets, published speeches, long musical works, movies, television programs, works of visual art (titles of paintings, statues, etc.), ships, foreign phrases
Titles that should be in quotation marks are: short stories, songs, short poems, articles in magazines, essays, episodes of a television program, chapter titles in a book.
Correct examples:
book: The Giver short story: "Little Red Riding Hood"
short poem: "Ozymandias"
long poem: The Song of Roland
movie: Men in Black

2. Speeding through contractions. Never, never, never write: should of, could of, would of.
The correct way: should have, could have, would have
The correct contraction: should've, could've, would've
Correct example: The boy should've been nicer to his sister.
By the way, try to avoid using contractions in formal writing, please!

3. Illicit use of the word like.
Avoid the use of the word like at all costs when you are using it to cite examples.
Replace like with such as, for example, for instance.

4. Use of forbidden, boring, informal words.
From now on, these words are forbidden in formal writing in this classroom: a lot, all right, stuff, well, gonna, wanna, kinda.
Of course, the last three words can be used in their correct format: going to, want to, kind of.

5. Incorrect spelling.
These words are commonly misspelled at this school: beginning, choose, chose, loose, lose, separate

6. Improper matching of THEY to THEIR, and HE/SHE to HIS/HER.
If the beginning of the sentence says: The mother wanted to make the boy happy,
Then the rest should say: so she gave her favorite old toy to him.
Make sure the descriptive words their, his, her refer back to the correct subject. If the subject is a single thing (such as a thing, a person, etc.) then don't use their.

7. Illegal use of BECAUSE and UNTIL
If you want to use because and until, then use the complete form of the word.
Never use cause or til. (Note: Sometimes you will see till used in poems and advertisements.)
The correct contractions for these words are 'cause and 'til. Avoide using contractions in formal writing.

8. Mixing up THIS, THAT, and WHO.
Never say: There was this boy and this tree... Correct example: There was a boy and a tree...
Only use this when the thing is right there in front of you.
Never say: The story is about a young boy that loves a tree.
Use who when referring to people. The boy is a person, so the sentence should read: The story is about a young boy who loves a tree.
Use that for objects and things, not people.

9. Illegal use of IT'S and ITS.
Correct examples: It's the right thing to do. (contraction for "it is")
The building cast its shadow. (the shadow belongs to the building, so its is a possessive, and doesn't use an apostrophe! John's book, Joe's shoe)

10. Illegal use of YOUR and YOU'RE.
Everyone spells these alike because they sound alike. BEWARE!!!!
Correct examples: You're almost ready to try it alone. (contraction for "you are")
Here is your paper. (your is a possessive, the paper belongs to you)

11. Illegal use of THEIR and THERE and THEY'RE.
Three more words that everyone spells the same because they sound the same.
Correct examples: There is another door over there. (shows location or existence).
Their ice cream cones are melting all over their shoes. (possessive)
They're not really ready to go yet. (contraction for "they are")

Set an alarm in your brain that goes off every time you are about to use one of these words, and make sure to stop and check that you are using the correct form before you go on.

12. Illegal use of S / Illegal use of the APOSTROPHE. An s is put at the end of a word for two reasons: to make it plural, or to show possession.
Correct examples: PLURALS: books, students POSSESSION: the book's pages, the student's desk
When you add an s to make something plural, DO NOT USE an apostrophe. (Note: the only exception is shown in Grammar Crime #9 above.)

13. Illegal use of TO, TOO, and TWO.
Use too when you are exaggerating...example: It was too much!
Too can also mean also...example: I want to go too!
Two means the numeral 2.
Correct example: I want to go too so I can buy two pieces of candy.

14. Improper matching of verbs.
If the subject of the sentence is singular, then use a singular verb.
Example: It walks, rides, was, is, says, tries, decides, spoke, can, will, does
If the subject of the sentence is plural, then use a verb that goes with the plural.
Example: They walk, ride, were, are, say, try, decide, spoke, can, will, do

15. Using DOUBLE NEGATIVES.
In other languages, such as Spanish, the more negatives you have in a sentence, the more negative the statement. But in English, you can have only one negative per sentence, so make sure you don't put more than one of these words in the same sentence: Negatives: not, don't, can't, won't, shouldn't, couldn't, wouldn't, didn't, no, neither, nothing
Here is a bad example from a student paper: Having no trees aren't nothing. (There were three negatives in the above sentence!)

16. Mixing up WILL and CAN, WOULD and COULD.
If you are writing in the present tense, use verbs such as: are, is, does, then when you get to a sentence where you want to use the future tense, use will or can.
If you are writing in the past tense, use verbs such as: were, was, did, then when you get to a sentence where you want to use the future tense, use would or could.

Issued: 9/30/91; revised: 9/23/95; re-revised: 9/29/96; fourth edition: 8/22/97

These grammar crimes come directly from my students' writing. Grammar Crime #5, for instance, might be different at various schools. I added chose/choose, lose/loose this year; I'm already thinking about adding definite next year. Grammar Crime #14 is a problem with second language learners who have a first language that doesn't use plurals, especially if they have picked up the rule that says, "If it's plural, add an s." They apply the rule to verbs instead of nouns. Grammar Crime #12 has been an increasing problem over the past few years, so I recently added it to the hot sheet.

I reproduce the handout on bright fluorescent red paper, so that the handout not only looks like a "hot sheet," but it can easily be located by the students in their notebooks. Over the years I've distributed the hot sheet to the students in various ways. One year I had the students pair up and adopt a crime, then teach the way to avoid the crime to the class, using worksheets and quizzes that they developed. I had grammar handbooks available for them to use for reference. Most years I simply hand it out. This year I gave it to the students at the same time that I returned their first writing assignments, which I had graded using grammar crimes. This made them want to look at the hot sheet immediately. When I grade papers, I simply circle the grammar crimes. I no longer write long comments in the margins. I circle the crime, and put the number above the circle. After six years I have finally memorized the numbers that go with each crime. Usually I have a grammar crime hot sheet in my grade book for reference when I'm reading papers. One weekend I didn't have the hot sheet with me, and I hadn't yet memorized every crime, so I circled the crimes and put a #__ above the circle. When I returned those papers, the students thought that the blank meant that they had to go through the grammar crime hot sheet to identify which crime they had committed. This turned out to be a good idea, because the students took a more active part in identifying their mistakes.

I tell the students that I do not want them to commit a grammar crime more than once. When they look at a returned paper, they are responsible for looking up their "crimes" on the hot sheet and reading the explanation. Of course, they can ask me for further clarification. I tell them if they continue to commit the same crime over and over, that I will put them in jail. "Jail" is a worksheet reviewing the crime. I have developed worksheets for each crime, using ideas from grammar handbooks. Each year I also use the worksheets for review before the annual standardized test.

There are several practical advantages to using the Grammar Crime Hot Sheet. It saves me time when I am grading papers. It allows me to focus on 16 common mechanical errors, mistakes that are taken directly from the students' writing. Students learn to correct their own mistakes. Students with strong mechanics don't have to sit through lessons about mistakes that they don't make, and students who need to focus on particular errors get support. Students scoff at the tongue-in-cheek negative presentation of the seriousness of committing grammar crimes, yet retain the idea that making errors is a serious problem. All of these advantages persuade me to continue using the hot sheet every year.

I wish I could say that when my students leave my class, they never make these particular errors again. I haven't followed their writing into the next grade level. I hope, though, that they are more aware of "grammar crimes," and at least think seriously about the importance of writing without mechanical errors.

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An Old But Hot Issue in Language Instruction: Grammar Or Communication?
-Toshiko Sugino

As communication skills are emphasized more and more in language learning in recent years, grammar instruction, including the role of grammar, has been treated somewhat ambiguously. Even in Japan, where English is taught as a foreign language (EFL) and traditional grammar teaching prevails, some educators and administrators have advocated excluding English from one of mandatory entrance examinations subjects. I will discuss controversial views of language teachers and students on grammar teaching and willl introduce a content based grammar and composition course I taught last year.

Entrance examinations have an overwhelming influence not only on English education but also the everyday life of Japanese people. Generally students start taking English instruction in the first year of junior high school and continue for six years. The focus of instruction is on memorizing vocabulary and idioms and learning discrete grammar points. Translation is heavily involved and instruction is teacher-fronted and done mostly in Japanese often with grammatical terminology. Moreover, the junior high school curriculum and the number of students per class are rigidly set by Ministry of Education. Reading material and grammar questions on most of the entrance exams are on a high level, which require students to attend cram schools after school or so called 'study to death' in order to pass them. Either way, English is studied silently without any utterances.

Listening and speaking practices are provided but mostly with tapes and sometimes with native-speaker teaching assistants but not to the extent of carrying on conversations. Prof. Brown in his interview with Kay (1995) mentions that, while some high school teachers may be trying to teach English communicatively, students expect only 'exam English' from them and as a result, "most of these same students can't use the language to actually hold a conversation in English without considerable hesitation, giggling, and embarrassment on their part" when they take communication classes in college (p.8).

There is only one correct answer to each question and no other exceptions. Errors are not tolerated, even minor punctuation errors. Naturally that makes students afraid of making mistakes. One junior high school student wrote one time. 'I like tennis.' So I said, 'Oh, so you like to play tennis, ha?' She said 'No.' Actually she liked volleyball better but since she didn't know how to spell it and she was afraid to miss points, she wrote it that way, she said. Another time, this student wrote a capital letter 'R' slightly different from the one shown in a textbook and one point was deducted from every 'R' she wrote on a test. This may sound like an extreme case but unfortunately it is not.

There has been heated argument on English Education in Japan between Mr. Hiraizumi and Prof. Watanabe ever since their first controversial article was published in 1974. As their views seem to represent that of most Japanese language teachers and educators, I will introduce them here briefly. Mr. Hiraizumi, having served as a diplomat in several foreign countries and later having become a member of the Diet, criticized a Japanese English education system to the point of saying that English education has proved useless. He claims that even after 6 years of studying English in junior and senior high schools, students cannot use it communicatively; cannot even carry on very basic everyday conversation. He therefore suggests, in high school, English should be an elective course only for those who have enough motivation and ability. In other words, he evidently wishes to produce language elites.

Prof. Watanabe, who finished his Ph.D. program at Oxford University after finishing his Master's degree at a Japanese university, claims that we Japanese began to analyze English when Japan decided to open the country to Western civilization in 1868, and no other country has better English grammar books than Japan does. According to Prof. Watanabe, through these grammar books, we have learned English. We may not be able to speak it well but even high school students can read a 17th century essay written by Bacon. And he claims that, when the right time comes, this grammatical knowledge will be very helpful for learning English communicatively. Therefore, he insists, at school, we should not measure students' (linguistic) competency but should measure students' potential competency.

In college, however, the trend has been to move away from a grammar instruction to interaction-based instruction. Universities have hired many native-speaker instructors and Japanese teachers of English who have studied Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) or a related field, and know how to enhance communicative competence in student-centered settings. They realize that students' linguistic competence rarely leaves the sentence level and is unrelated to the real world.

On the other hand, I have heard several older Japanese professors complain that communication is now so much emphasized in college education that students do not have enough linguistic knowledge to read research papers in English in the fields. Students accept the importance of grammar but feel that today's present English education is not beneficial; they cannot communicate well in English after six years of instruction.

Manley and Calk (1997) mention a suggestion by VanPatten(1993) that we should focus more on what kind of grammar instruction would be useful to learners rather than to verify the role of grammar. Celce-Murcia (1991) also states that "grammar instruction is part of language teaching. In this new role, grammar interacts with meaning, social function, or discourse - or a combination of these - rather than standing alone as an autonomous system to be learned for its own sake." (p 459)

When I was assigned to teach a grammar and composition course at a college, I wanted to make this class more interesting and enjoyable than a conventional grammar class, paying attention to both form and content. More relevant and meaningful tasks would make this possible, I thought since I knew students were fed up with conventional grammar instruction.

The class consisted of 25 sophomores majoring in French. They had had six years of grammar based English instruction previously plus four communication and reading classes in their freshman year. The aim of the class was not only to gain more grammatical knowledge but also to be able to use grammar in a more meaningful context: to express thoughts, feelings and opinions. To learn to become insightful about family, friends and about oneself. For the first semester, reaction papers were due, followed by presentations. The final goal was to write their own original short stories.

I. Follow the instructions in the textbook. (Many form-based exercises were taken out of the textbook but later content based tasks were added.)
1. Write simple sentences rather mechanically following the grammatical instruction given, e.g. My sister watches horror films. (rarely),What kind of music do you prefer listening to? What is the best thing that happened last year?
2. Correct errors in a composition in the textbook. Then correct your friend's errors in his or her composition. e.g.. My name is Sato. I have been to Tokyo yesterday.
3. Make questions. e.g. I often play soccer. a. Who do you play soccer with?
b. Which pro-soccer team are you cheering for?

II. Write content-based compositions or short stories. Read the short story Who I really am in the textbook. Write a draft of their own story and then rewrite the draft. For summer homework, do a creative writing entitled What makes us mature.

III. Write more about feelings and opinions. e.g. These people need some advice. Can you help them? Advise them.
Dear Lucy,
I am a university student, but I don't want to be. I'm here because my parents want me to be here. But I'm not so happy... But I know my education is important to my parents. So what can I do?

After writing your advice, write your own problem and ask for some advice. How did you feel about the advice you got?
Finish 'unfinished stories'.
Anousone is a fifth year student at the School of Law. He is 32 years old, medium height, smart, cheerful and friendly, which makes all the girls interested in him. Everyone in the School of Law thinks Anousone is single.
What do you think will happen next in this story?

IV. Write a short story.
1. Create characters. e.g. Toki , 68, stubborn, cold, she loans money, lives alone.
Harumi, 27, Toki's daughter-in-law, intelligent, aggressive, owns a small company.
2. Write a summary.
3. Stretch a story.
4. Finish the story.

Students wrote romantic, mysterious or funny stories. Each was unique and creative and a few were even moving. When some of the stories were introduced in class, students were impressed with each story. As for the error correction, errors were corrected extensively when focus was on form so that learners could achieve more accuracy. When they were writing drafts, corrections were made not only on grammar points but also on expressions and the structure of the story. When a final story was turned in, only minimal corrections were made and I just sat back and enjoyed reading their stories.

Dickens and Woods (1988) suggest "grammar should rarely be examined in terms of discrete items but, rather, should be introduced to learners as a means to successful communication. This applies to the presentation both of content areas and grammatical rules," (p.642). Davidheiser (1996) also suggests that while teachers may be reluctant to turn learning over to their students, especially on a college level, if teachers empower students to perform their job better, they will speak and write more grammatically (p. 276).

I have found that the best way to teach grammar is to pay attention to both form and content in a student-centered instruction. When students are given tasks that are meaningful and fun, they become more motivated and productive and they can create fascinating compositions and stories which are related to real life and their own feelings.

In a country like Japan where entrance examinations have a strong hold on education and The Ministry of Education decides what to teach and how to teach, the change may take a long time. Moreover, there are not enough high school teachers who are trained to teach communicative grammar. But I feel that students will later, as teachers, teach consciously or unconsciously in the way(s) in which they have been taught. The process may take hold very slowly but what we as language teachers must teach what we believe to be the best method. Concerning grammar instruction, the best way may be communicative grammar teaching focused both on form and content. This paper is concerned with EFL, but ESL teachers may benefit from it.

Celce-Murcia (1991) may have summed it up best in her paper, "Grammar, along with lexis - and also phonology for spoken discourse - are resources for creating meaning through text and for negotiating socially motivated communication. These resources need to be learned and sometimes they also need to be taught; however, when taught, they must be taught in a manner that is consonant with grammar's new role," (p.477).

Works Cited
Celce-Murcia, Marianne. 1991. "Grammar Pedagogy in Second and Foreign Language Teaching," TESOL Quarterly 25: 459-480.
Davidheiser, James C. 1996. "Grammar Groups In the Student Centered Classroom," Foreign Language Annals 29: 271-278.
Dickens Pauline M. and Edwards G. Woods. 1988. " Some Criteria for the Development of Communicative Grammar Tasks," TESOL Quarterly 22: 623-646.
Kay, G. S. 1995. "English Language Entrance Examinations at Japanese Universities: Interview With James Dean Brown," The Language Teacher 19: 7-11.
Hiraizumi, Wataru, and Shouichi Watanabe. 1995. A Controversy On English Education, Tokyo: Bungei Shunjyu
Manley, Joan H, and Linda Calk. 1997. "Grammar Instruction for Writing Skills: Do Students Perceive Grammar as Useful?" Foreign Language Annals 30:73-83.
VanPatten, Bill. 1993. "Input Processing and Second Language Acquisition: A Role for Instruction." Modern Language Journal 77:45-57.

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If You Must Teach Traditional English Grammar, Make It Short and Sweet.Then Get on to the Business of Writing and Literature.
- Ron Featheringill

I have taught high school English for more than twenty years and Business Writing at the university level for ten years; I have seldom encountered a teacher who enjoys teaching grammar in the traditional manner. Why? Most teachers who can teach English grammar do not like the subject. They remember the countless hours spent listening to their English teachers drone on and on about nouns, pronouns, and predicate adjectives. It was the time of day to catch up on lost sleep; it was the subject that made us “hate” English and shudder at the idea of passing on this kind of information to another human being. Human beings deserved better treatment.

And then when the “dead horse” of grammar was beaten enough, we were allowed to study literature and write about it. A light went on, beauty entered out lives, and suddenly dreaded English became a passion. We loved the subject, and we broke our vow never to become English teachers. Now it seemed like the only occupation that made sense and was actually fun.

But somewhere in the closet was the horrible specter of English grammar. We wondered where and when this feared apparition would shake its gory locks at us. I have a confession to make, and I wonder how many of us would reveal as much. I did not know the difference between a preposition and a predicate nominative until I actually started teaching English at the high school level where English grammar (taught in the traditional manner) was mandated by the curriculum. Enter Banquo’s ghost, and having no other alternative, I quaked in my boots. I remember pouring over grammar books which were always twenty years old, and making sure that I “had the right answers" so I would not make a mistake when we started identifying the eight parts of speech. I never wanted to tell other teachers that I did not know fundamental English grammar, but I found it odd that they were coming to me to ask about identifying difficult parts of speech. I guess my hours studying outdated grammar books were beginning to pay off.

Then I remembered a curious incident which happened to me earlier when I was an undergraduate studying upper division Shakespeare at the University of California at Santa Barbara. One day the instructor asked us to find ten lines in King Lear and identify the part of speech of each word in the passage. We handed in this assignment at the end of the class and received it back graded the next meeting. Absolutely no one had passed! No one spoke a word. Even the instructor said nothing. All the students were relieved when no more assignments of this nature were forthcoming. We knew very little about "basic" English grammar, but we were writing acceptable papers. It took me years to discern the meaning of this experience.

In a recent study my colleagues and I at California State University, Fullerton, discovered that most of our students (almost one-third of them are Asian) already know the basic rules of English grammar, but have difficulty stringing the words into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, and the paragraphs into readable memos, letters, proposals and research papers (38). We discover their writing problems by giving them diagnostic assignments and in-class writing experiences where they must write on their own without the help of friends and relatives. In fact, nearly 60 percent of our writing is done in class. We ask our students to rewrite their papers once we help them discover their errors and submit them for a second reading. We give their documents a third reading when the students submit them in their final portfolios, collections of their “perfected” assignments from the entire semester. The portfolio is worth 200 points out of a possible 1,000 points, so the assignment is worth doing correctly. We teach our students that writing, revising/proofreading, and rewriting are essential steps in the writing process. I would suggest asking students at the high school level to submit portfolios of their perfected essays at the end of the semester so they can understand what accurate writing is all about and see that they can actually achieve it.

Does teaching accuracy in writing have to be a laborious, boring activity? Absolutely not. There are only about four or five kinds of mistakes that students in high school and college habitually make:

1. Spelling errors. There is no good excuse for spelling errors. Whether or not English is one’s second or sixteenth language, everyone can use (or should use) a dictionary. Computer spell-checks are certainly useful, but the time-honored dictionary will help the student tell the difference between “isle” and “aisle.”

2. Run-on sentences. My favorite outdated grammar book renders the following example of a “fused” sentence:

Balboa gazed upon the broad Pacific his heart was filled with awe. When you inform your students that this is a run-on sentence and ask them where it “goes wrong,” almost half the class members immediately tell you, “between ‘Pacific’ and ‘his.’” How can one fix this “sentence”? The student can place a comma after “Pacific” and add a conjunction. The student can place a semicolon after “Pacific.” He or she can create two sentences out of the fused sentence. Or, he or she can reduce one of the clauses to a subordinate clause by adding a subordinating word: When Balboa gazed upon the broad Pacific, his heart was filled with awe.

A “comma splice” sentence is a run-on sentence in which a comma is attempting to do more work than it can do. It is the grammatical equivalent to building your house with paper exterior walls. The grammar book gives the following example:
The witness was unwilling to testify, he was afraid of the accused man. One can fix this problem as we fixed the “fused” sentence above.

How does one check for “comma splice” sentences in his or her writing? I urge my students to find the commas in their writings, especially the commas in long sentences. Let us return to the example above. I ask the students to find the comma in the statement. Then I ask them to determine if everything to the left of the comma is a complete statement which could stand on its own. For example, does “The witness was unwilling to testify,” make sense by itself? They usually agree that it does. Then I ask, “Does everything to the right of the comma express a complete thought?” they agree that “…he was afraid of the accused man.” does make sense on its own. I then ask them if there is a conjunction on the right of the comma or any other type of punctuation with more force than a comma (such as a period or a semicolon). They agree that there is not. Then we agree that we have a comma splice sentence before us which is a major, but fixable, grammatical error (Leggett 62-63).

3. Sentence fragments. My faithful grammar book offers the following example (the first statement is a good sentence while the underlined one is a fragment):
He leaped through the window with a crash. Because there was no other way of escaping the fire.

How does one check for sentence fragments in his or her writing. My colleague Craig Hargis at CSUF presents "the bus-stop check for sentence fragments." He urges us to imagine that we are late and waiting at a bus stop for our bus. We are preoccupied with getting home where we will meet our loved ones. Suddenly someone runs up to us and utters, "Because there was no other way of escaping the fire!" Would we know what the person was talking about? No. Of course not. We only have part of the thought; we have a sentence fragment. How can we fix this problem? Here are the ways, and the instructor can offer whatever grammatical explanation he or she likes:
He leaped through the window with a crash because there was no other way of escaping the fire.
He leaped through the window with a crash; there was no other way of escaping the fire.
He leaped through the window with a crash. There was no other way of escaping the fire
(Leggett 60-61).

The instructor can replace the bus stop with a burning house in the neighborhood or with any other distracting scene he or she likes. I find that capturing the students' imaginations is preferable to more traditional "dry as dust" methods of locating sentence fragments.

4. Pronouns. Almost everyone makes mistakes like the one following, and I believe that the error below is a serious one in writing:
Everyone should exercise their right to vote.

I make this mistake (which some instructors believe is an informality rather than an error) several times a day when I am lecturing or speaking to other people, but I eliminate it from my writing. We hear others ignoring the rule that "a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number," and the mistake is made on the radio and on TV constantly. Faulty pronoun usage is a spinoff from our efforts to avoid sexism in language. When I ask my students how their grandparents would have written the statement above correctly, some of them tell me:

Everyone should exercise his right to vote.

This is sexism, and we all run away from such language today (or should). But how do we solve the problem? We can write, "Everyone should exercise his or her right to vote," but if we stick to the antecedent "everyone" in a paragraph we often find ourselves repeating "his or her" over and over again. The best approach is to pluralize the antecedent from the beginning changing "everyone" to "people" or "Americans" (or any other plural word) and retaining the pronoun “their."

Americans should exercise their right to vote.

The troublesome indefinite pronouns are singular: each, either, neither, one, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, anyone, anybody, someone and somebody. I urge my students to test these words to see if they are singular or plural. Taking "everyone" as an example, would we say, "Everyone is on time," or "Everyone are on time"? Everyone knows that the former is correct, so the pronoun must be singular.

5. Subject/verb agreement. Oddly, I do not find as many instances of subject/verb agreement problems as I find spelling errors, run-on sentences, sentence fragments and faulty pronoun usage. In high school or at the college or university level, a student who habitually makes agreement mistakes needs the help of a good grammar book, your individual attention, and perhaps several referrals to a Writing Lab, such as we have at CSUF. Agreement problems usually show themselves in papers of individual students. Revising papers and experience with the English language usually cut down errors of this type significantly.

6. Miscellaneous errors. This category is broad and includes problems with capitalization, use of quotation marks, faulty parallel structure, etc. I aver that most of these problems stem from pure carelessness, and you can easily detect them in the students' writing. We need to remind our students that they are making such errors when we mark their papers, and we need to remind them once again when we insist that they revise their papers for a second and a third reading.

We need to concentrate more on specific problems at determined stages in the students' education. Possibly junior high schools and middle schools should work intensively on the miscellaneous errors and subject/verb agreement. When students are in the ninth grade, the focus should be on eliminating run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Student writing should be intensified in the tenth grade as sophomores prepare for district-level writing competency exams. Teachers of sophomores should emphasize pronoun usage, and all teachers from middle school onwards should emphasize good spelling and an increased vocabulary.

At all levels the students should write, write, write so that we can correct the errors that they actually make and not waste time on discussing problems they do not have. This approach is different from the so-called traditional approach where an individual English teacher is responsible for covering everything under the sun (beginning with the eight parts of speech) in a year. This approach leads only to boredom and frustration for everyone. In some cases we may even eliminate the joy of reading and writing about what we read. If we narrowed our grammatical focus a bit at each grade level, we could more easily ensure mastery of the areas we cover. And hopefully at the junior and senior level in high school and at all levels of the college or university the students would write more competently.

And lastly, I not only urge writing as a means to detect students' errors, I also believe that much time should be spent reading literature in English classes and the literature of business in business writing classes. In order to know what good writing is, we need to read good writing. It is also fun and instructive to pay attention to writers who depart from the norm. For example, we have much to learn as we study the grammar and sentence structure of James Joyce and read the unusual business proposition of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.

Works Cited
Brusaw, Charles T., Gerald J. Alred, and Walter E. Oliu. The Business Writer’s Handbook. 5th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Featheringill, Ron, Jean Fuller, and Gayle Vogt. "Native and Nonnative Student Writers." Business Communication Quarterly (A publication of the Association for Business Communication) 59:3 (September 1996): 29-42.
Hargis, Craig. Telephone interview. 15 October 1997.
Leggett, Glenn, C. David Mead, and William Charvat. Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers. 6th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.

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