Monthly Archives: January 2011

Bad Writing

Dick Cavett is generally well regarded as a writer, but I am trying to understand why. I do not remember reading anything he has ever written that had not been overwritten. His recent piece “The Wrath of Grapes” in the NY TImes is typical of what I have read by him.

Like most bad writing, the nastiness of the piece exists on a number of levels. There is, of course, the obvious problem with writing about being drunk, which is a topic best covered by adolescents at MySpace or ex-boyfriends in text messages. Cavett figured the NY Times readers were missing out on the fun, so he decided to write a two-part piece on his adventures with a bottle of Scotch during the 1960s. Thanks, Dick.

Things get worse when he starts writing and comes up with this paragraph:

The mouth was a distinct displeasure. I remember saying aloud, to no one, “It tastes like I’ve eaten an assortment of larvae.” I tried to laugh but the head pain forbade any more than a murmur of self-appreciation. I made it to the sink as Vesuvius erupted.

The paragraph starts off well enough, but when Cavitt describes the larvae as an “assortment,” he has started overwriting. Most people cannot identify with eating larvae in the first place, so I doubt describing the taste as “an assortment of larvae” rather than as “larvae” is much like differentiating between the tastes of cookies-and-cream and vanilla.

Then there is the use of “forbade” which only  a nun at a grammar school in 1962 would use with a straight face. But the coup de grace is his allusion to Vesuvius, which fans of classical correspondence know quite well since it suffocated Pliny the Elder under a blanket of volcanic ash and rock.

What strikes me about Cavitt’s writing is not that its stuffed with pseudo-intellectual silliness but that it relies on diction and allusion for its sophistication. Those two rhetorical tools mark the style of Cavitt, and both are focused on words, not phrases and clauses. When Cavitt needs precision and accuracy, he reaches for individual words with multiple syllables and uses them to make himself sound worldly and well-read.

Word choice is an important part of writing well, but it is only a small part of good style and has the danger of leading to overwriting. Having an ear for what sounds right means more than reaching for a thesaurus; it means being in tune to the rhythms of phrases and clauses and how they affect the style and aesthetics of the sentences and paragraphs. Good writers know this.


The Not-So Simple but Oh-So Necessary Task of Defining Words and Sentences

One of the more difficult things to do in grammar instruction is to define what a sentence is. It is almost as difficult as defining what a word is. No kidding.

Words seem self evident. They are units of language that are made up of letters and have an identifiable meaning or definition that can usually be found in a dictionary. In speech they can be pronounced as a single unit, while in print they have spaces on both sides. That seems simple enough.

We could keep this simple and exemplify this with a solid word, such as the word “establish,” and proceed to find it in the dictionary. Then we would find that even has eight definitions for the word. All of them are the same part of speech, so this is not really that much of a problem. (I can imagine that the OED has a few extra definitions, but that is a silly book we should not trouble ourselves with at this point.) But if I look at how we defined the parameters of a word as having an identifiable meaning, would “establish” be one word or eight? I will try not to think about that right now.

Instead I will move on to another issue brought up by the modification of words with suffices. (Is that supposes to be “suffices” or “suffixes”? And would that count as one word or two? They seem to be two different words but they have the same exact definition. No matter. I should be writing and not thinking.) I could, for example, add an “es” to the end of “establish” and make it “establishes.” Does this count as a different word or a modification? Probably a modification, eh? How about if I slap a suffix on the end and change it from the verb “establish” to the noun “establishment.” Seems good. How about if I add an “s” onto the end and make it “establishments”? Not really? How about if I slap a prefix onto the “establishment” and create “antiestablishment.”  Or “antiestablishmentarian.” And then “antiestablishmentarianism.” And we should not forget “antiestablishmentarianisms.”

Our most basic unit for grammatical instruction seems hopelessly undefinable in any practical sense. I am sure a good linguist could go through all this silliness and make sense of it with precise definitions of concepts only a linguist would be familiar with. The problem is that a linguist’s precision would quickly become silliness for most students.

We run into a similar problem with the definition of a sentence. The most common definition I have heard is probably the one that has created the most confusion. Most students come into class with the definition they picked up in junior high or high school: “a sentence is a complete thought.”

This definition tells students very little since a “complete thought” can be as simple as a one word answer to a question. If someone asks you “When are we going to Disneyland?”, an answer of “Tuesday” would be perfectly complete since nothing else is needed to answer the question. A complete thought could also answer the question “What is a sentence?” but that question seems to be demanding more than a one word answer at this point since I am nowhere near completing this thought.

The “complete thought” definition becomes mildly useful, however, when students try to determine if a dependent clause can be punctuated as a sentence. The dependent clause “When Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn”  sounds as if something is missing. Most student say they want to know what happened when Claude was waiting in line.

It seems many people have this vague sense that something is missing when there is no independent clause. Asking about what happened when Claude was waiting in line forces the students to come up with an independent clause that would change the fragment into a sentence. It would seem that the “complete thought” people might have a point about fragments. But, thankfully, they do not. A simple erasure of the subordinating conjunction “when” would change things entirely. The stripped down clause would read “Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn,” which most people would probably consider to be a complete thought, but this transformation happened not because something was completed, but because something was eliminated.

I do understand that linguists can break this stuff down far more effectively than I can and are able to provide more precise definitions of words and sentences. I get that. These linguistic definitions are not useful for someone who wants to write better for a job and does not care much for discussing the shortcomings of Chomsky’s universal grammar in light of the fMRI studies published in Volume 114 of Brain and Language. The problem is that when we simplify things for grammar instruction, we often create problems for our students. That is usually not the goal of simplification.

But instead of doing away with our rules and definitions because of their short comings, we need to make it clear that many of the terms we work with are good only within a certain context and are not so much rules as they are conventions. Students who learn grammar in college just want to write better and have no use for the particulars of language. In a sense, our students are learning to become mechanics and need to know and need to know where to pour the oil; they are not learning to become mechanical engineers who need to calculate velocity using the Bernoulli theorem.

Contractions and Verisimilitude in “True Grit”

The contraction-free diction and the biblical themes in the movie True Grit have caught the attention of a number of folks who know far more about movies and language and literature than I do or ever will. The movie is a remake of the John Wayne movie of the same name and is based on Charles Portis’ novel which was written in the 1960s.

Alan Barra at the Daily Beast makes it quite clear that he believes the movie accurately portrays the way people spoke back then and credits studious attention to the King James Bible by the good country people in Arkansas for this:

One of the best things about True Grit is that all of it is written in that vernacular, the speech of people who, while they may have been illiterate, were raised on readings of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, an English practically devoid of contractions and Latinate words. Portis, the reclusive author of a handful of novels (including NorwoodMasters of AtlantisGringoes, and Dog of the South, all of which have devoted cult followings), and a former journalist, supposedly learned the rhythms and cadences of late-19th century Southern speech working on newspaper stories in rural northwest Arkansas.

Illiterate people were raised on readings from Shakespeare and the King James Bible? Huh? Shakespeare is devoid of contractions and Latinate words? Umm…. The people of Arkansas in the late 19th-centrury English did not use contractions? Errr….

Maybe there was a highly redacted version of Works of Shakespeare that all the illiterates were checking out of the Little Rock library in the 1870’s that I just do not know about, and maybe Charles Portis cut class and went fishing the day he was to have read Huck Finn and missed Mark Twain’s stab at the rhythms and cadences of late 19th century Southern speech. Maybe.

(Oddly enough Barras claims to have read True Grit but seems to have not read Portis’ other novels which are covered in contractions and those fancy-pants Latinate words. No matter. Maybe Barras cut class the day those novels were assigned.)

The claims about Shakespeare are easily dismissed with a glance at any page of any of his plays from any point in his writing career, but the claims for rhythms and cadences of Southern speech in the 19th century and for the role of the the King James Bible in setting the morality of the characters seem to be taken seriously by others who should know better, such as Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanley Fish at the New York Times.

The question of the contractions comes up in two blog entries by the linguist Mark Liberman here and here. Liberman does an interesting analysis of the near complete lack of contractions in not only the narration of Mattie in the novel but even the speech of the characters throughout the movie. Personally, I caught only one contraction in the entire movie while others in the comments section of his blog claim to have heard as many as three. This is more than a little bit odd since the movie is set in the 1870’s and deals almost entirely with the lives of adults and a child who have little education.

Liberman makes a point of quoting a gentleman by the name of David Fried who brings up this issue of contractionless speech. I cannot find Fried anywhere on the Internet, which probably means he does not exist, but he does apparently quote Ethan Coen in a Newsweek interview as having explained the lack of contractions as a 19th century mode of speech:

She [Hailee Steinfeld] handles that language. Did people actually not talk with contractions at that time?

Ethan: We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.

What stuns me is that Liberman takes Coen as being somewhat serious. If Ethan Coen were at all serious, then Barras would have something akin to a point, and we should know better. Anyone who has ever seen one of the Coen brothers’ movies or read any of their interviews should know that is a pretty silly thing to take anything they say seriously. (They were, after all, born in Minnesota.) In fact, this comment that the language is true to the time comes right after Joel and Ethan have a good deal of fun with Mattie’s amputation, which Ethan flippantly compares it to 127 Hours where a hiker loses his own arm.

The whole interview is clearly a lark for Joel and Ethan, and anyone looking for something insightful into the movie itself from the words of the Coen brothers is hunting for snipes in the forests of Minnesota. But Liberman treks on and even starts running word searches through Google Labs and finds that they probably did not talk that way back in 1870.

I don’t know what Portis intended, and I don’t know what the Coen brothers did. But I know that that informal American speech in the 1870s was far from contractionless, and in fact I suspect that it had roughly the same proportion of contractions as it does today.

Liberman follows up this insight with quotations from a 1989 article in the Journal of English Linguistics and with some fairly unscientific searches for contractions through Google Books. Liberman is having some fun with this whole thing and calls it a “Breakfast Experiment,” but he does seem to think Portis and the Coen brothers believe this is how people spoke in Oklahoma and Arkansas in 19th century America.

Stanley Fish comes closer to understanding the nature of the moral themes of the movie when he notes how individual virtue is answered arbitrarily with either rewards or punishments but more often with indifference and violence in a column he wrote for the New York Times. God’s grace, he notes, is withheld or handed out to people in ways that make human virtues seems worthless, and he sees Mattie and the Coen brothers as being well aware of this in a religious sense that goes beyond what John Wayne and other might recognize:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Oddly enough, outside of the opening frames where a quotation from Proverbs is given regarding the flight of those sinners who are not pursued, there are not any key scenes where characters quote the Bible or discuss and debate biblical morality. Quotations from the Bible or scenes where characters are attending church services are absent. There are not even ministers or priests showing up for the coffins and dead bodies that are piled up throughout the movie.

Instead of discussions of religion and morality, we get a great deal of legal talk by Mattie and others around her along with debates over who has jurisdiction and what kind of justice is to take place and where it is to be executed. Mattie’s whole motivation is based on her goal to ensure that the killer of her father is executed for his murder and not the other murders he has committed in Texas. There is nothing religious or biblical about this motive, and she is quite clear about this. She wants a legal form of revenge and is willing to pay $50.00 for it. Plain and simple.

Being one of the most accomplished Milton scholars this country has produced, Fish is certainly going to be well aware of any biblical allusions or quotations that should cross his path, but, oddly enough, he has a hard time finding them in the movie itself, let alone the words of Mattie. Fish ends up quoting lines from the book that are not in the movie and citing passages from the Bible that Mattie herself does not seem to know. This should have been a sign to him.

The lack of contractions, oddly enough, is the key to understanding the way Mattie is constructing the characters in her narrative and her views of the world. Mattie’s alleged biblical training may be responsible for aversion to contractions, but this must be inferred since she never demonstrates all that much familiarity with the Bible or any real concern with what God might think of what she is doing. She makes some loose allusions to the Bible but shows surprisingly little knowledge of the text itself and does not cite it to justify her motives. Ever. She does not even bother to have a cross placed on the tombstone of Rooster Cogburn even though she pays for his burial herself. That should have been another sign to Fish.

Instead of seeing what is missing right in front of him, Fish claims Mattie’s convictions are rooted in a faith so deep it cannot be perceived in our world:

[Mattie] goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts. That is the message Iris Dement proclaims at the movie’s close when she sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”: “Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way / Leaning on the everlasting arms / Oh how bright the path goes from day to day / Leaning on the everlasting arms / What have I to dread what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

You would think Fish would be a little more alert to the irony of a woman with one arm humming this hymn about leaning on “everlasting arms,” but he misses that part. Again. You might also think he would be able to cite a single instance of Mattie claiming to have a faith deeply rooted in her own convictions. Once again, Fish misses what is missing.

Instead, Mattie cites the law and her familiarity with those who practice it again and again and again. You cannot get out of one scene or another without her or someone else explaining what the law is or where it applies and who has which rights. Mattie knows the law and knows a good lawyer and will take you to court again and again and again if you do not give her what she sees as hers by right.

What is so surprising is that Fish says nothing about all this legal talk. He is not only a Milton scholar but a professor of law too. Legal language, as he well knows, is one of the few areas where contractions are not used with any regularity today or back in the courts of 1870’s Arkansas. Mattie’s relentless adherence to a legal language rather than her alleged affection for a Bible would explain why she wipes the contractions right off the lips of all the characters in the story she narrates.

What becomes painfully clear throughout the movie is that her legal mind is about as well tuned to the situation she finds herself in as her ear is to the speech of the people around her. She cannot see how arbitrary and indifferent the law really is to her and those around her any better than she can hear the inflections of of the speech of the people she communicates with. She is as blind to the workings of the law as she is deaf to the contractions in speech of those around her.

So Fish is right in claiming that Mattie sticks with her convictions, but he is wrong in seeing this as occurring in spite of the indifference of God’s grace to the virtues of people close to her. Instead, she sticks with her conviction that there can be something close to justice in a legal language and in a legal system that cares nothing for right and wrong, and she sticks to a language of lawyers and judges which hears and reports no contractions in the speech of others.

Some Not So Surprising Things About Reading and Recall

The New York Times has an article summarizing the research of Jeffrey Karpike of the Memory and Cognition Lab at Purdue University. The study Karpike conducted focuses on the effectiveness of different approaches to learning a reading passage on a scientific topic and was published in Science, a well-known scientific journal.

Karpike has put together four different studying scenarios together and measured their effectiveness soon after the study sessions and then a week after the study sessions.

  1. Have the students read the material in five minutes and then move on with their lives.
  2. Have the students read the material four different times for five minutes at a time.
  3. Have the students read the material and then draw diagrams of the material with the reading in front of them.
  4. Have the students read the material and then “test” themselves on it by writing for 10 minutes without the reading in front of them.

The assessments used by Karpike and his team seem to be well constructed since they ask questions that require the students to recall facts from the articles but also to make inferences from the materials. This type of assessment is common practice in reading research because it checks whether the student understands the materials but also whether he or she can apply it to a situation not covered in the reading.

Predictably, the first scenario where the student reads for five minutes and goes about his or her day does not work all that well in the assessment taken right after the study session nor in the assessment taken a week later. The next three scenarios all work fairly well both right after the study session and a week later, but the New York Times and Karpike go out of their way to point out that the fourth scenario works best, especially after a week’s time.

Here is the diagram the New York Times reproduced from the Science article to make this point:

Everything Karpike and his team are doing is well within the practices of the research I have read before. He has also conducted and published many studies quite similar to the one that the New York Times is treating as if it were ground breaking stuff. It is not, and that is a good thing.

I do, of course, have few problems with this article and the implications of it. (This is a blog, after all, so I must have a problem with somebody, right?) The New York Times’ headline writer is misleading by stating that students should quite studying and take a test. The “test” Karpike has the students use is not a question and answer test, but a free write where the student just rehashes as much as he or she can for ten minutes. It is just writing. There is nothing innovative in this approach, and that is a good thing.

Another problem is the one that all teachers confront when they read what appears to be relevant research. How can this be used with the lessons I teach to the students I have? Apparently, we should revise our lesson plans pronto:

“It really bumps it up a level of importance by contrasting it with concept mapping, which many educators think of as sort of the gold standard,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Although “it’s not totally obvious that this is shovel-ready — put it in the classroom and it’s good to go — for educators this ought to be a big deal.”

I guess I am not sure why research that Karpike has been conducting and publishing regularly for the past ten years or so should suddenly be a “big deal,” especially since it deals with methods most teachers have been using for quite some time. The reality is that Karpike has conducted some solid research over the course of a number of years and deserves to get the attention that comes with being published in Science. He makes no grandiose claims for his work, and that is a good thing.

When I look through the list and try to see how my students might make sense of them, things get different. The first approach of reading for five minutes and then moving on is clearly not going to work as well when the only goal is reading comprehension. The problem is that students use this method most often not because they mistakenly think it works well, but because it is easy and fast. This approach is going to be quite enticing to both lazy and overworked students who, depending on the work ethic, either want to get back to their video games or finish studying for three other courses. Depending on the context, the first approach might be the best one.

Even if writing for ten minutes works better than reading repeatedly or doodling a concept map, it might not be the best approach all the time for all students. For some students, the task of writing bring in too many other issues and anxieties and might interfere with learning the material. And concept mapping is not only useful for learning how to present material to others but is also a good deal easier and more fun for most students. When you have been cramming for a number of classes, a change in approach, especially if it is less taxing on your working memory, might be a better way to go.

Writing, as Karpike points out in the article and other research he has done, is more difficult to do that re-reading or coming up with a concept map. This means it is probably far more taxing on working memory and less likely to be something a student can do over and over again when there are multiple assignments to be completed in a limited amount of time.

In the end, the New York Times article reads much like the articles in car magazines that compare the relative worths of different models of sports cars. They put the cars through idealized testing situations and then quantify the results with clearly defined winners and losers. The problem is that there is usually more to the situation than the numbers can pick up. In this case, writing a summary after reading an assignment is the high horsepower option, but it seems to burn more gas than the other models.

[At this point I was going to connect this article to grammar instruction, but I would rather post a picture of a really cool Alfa Romeo 159 from 1951 that produced 425 hp from a 1.5 liter engine. Yes, folks, that year and those numbers are correct:


The only problem is that it got 1 mpg. And that is not such a good thing.]

More Taboo Than Religion or Politics: Correcting Grammar and Coining Money

I guess I would not be much of a blogger or grammarian if I did not write something about Jared Loughner and his rantings about grammar.


I first saw his views on grammar and a few other subjects at YouTube a little after his murderous rampage in Tucson. He made about four videos which include a good deal of  silliness about the U.S. Constitution, Pima Community College police, currency standards and other such stuff, but he also made a number of comments about grammar.

Here is a taste of what he posted at YouTube:

Don’t be scared to know you can’t

find the location of a subject. Most

students can’t locate the subject!

Most people know all the subjects

are for mind control and brainwash!

The students are unconstitutionally paying

for free education!

The students are attending a torture facility!

You know the teachers are con artists?

It seems as though Loughner has been given some fairly basic instruction on how to identify subjects and verbs which is pretty standard stuff in entry level composition courses, Oddly enough, Loughner seems to see grammar as being akin to mind control, and I cannot say I disagree with him entirely on this point. But Loughner takes his critique a bit further and maligns community college teachers as “con artists” in an unconstitutional institution. I have been called much worse on most days, so I will endure the insult and point out that people such as me are clearly threatening to Loughner’s sense of self and are part of the crew who have tortured him.

I am well aware that there are few things in this world as irritating as someone who tries to correct your subject/verb agreement or tells you that “ain’t” is not a word or provides some other nonsensical insight into your speech or writing, but Loughner’s response goes beyond annoyance and attempts to identify grammar instruction as a clear threat to himself and other students.

Oddly enough, Loughner’s critique of grammar instruction is quite similar to his view of money production. He places people who teach issues regarding subject identification on par with those who mint money for the treasury. Here are some of his thoughts on how he will get around the people who print off the money and press out the coins we use:

If I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as treasurer then

I’m thinking my new coin is starting a

new currency system.

I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as a treasurer.

Hence, I’m thinking my coin is

starting a new currency system.

Evidently Loughner sees coining his own money as being an important step to freeing himself from the economic constraints he feels bind him. Behind his anger against his grammar teachers and his scheme for producing his own currency is a mistaken notion that he can ultimately free himself from the limitations that come with these two systems of communication. Each day we communicate with each other through words and money, so fiddling with someone’s spoken and written language is not that much different than fiddling with someone’s money. The people who try to manipulate language and money are the true threats, at least in Loughner’s mind, and are guilty of the worst crimes against humanity, including torture and mind control.

Loughner mentions religion and politics at times in the videos, but these two subjects do not rouse nearly as much anger in him. His ranting focuses on grammar and money because these two areas are so much a part of our views of ourselves and our relations to others.

A Eye for Grammar and an Ear for Style

The metaphors for knowing style indicate that writing style touches on a number of different senses for aesthetics. We speak of having an ear for what sounds right as if writing were akin to music. We speak of having an eye for good writing as if it were a visual aesthetic in much the way painting or fashion are. The direct way of speaking about writing would be to comment on the structure of the grammar that goes into its composition but doing so misses so many of the effects writing style can have on a reader.

Good writing style can often be broken down into grammatical structures, but doing so tells us little about why it affects us so. Most writers usually do not set out to compose a piece with certain structures. Instead they try to tune their style to the subject matter in an intuitive matter.

This intuition is often misunderstood or ignored by much of what I have seen in the writings of those who have been trained in linguistics or those who put a good deal of value on writing grammatically.  Most linguists I have read seem to lack any sense of style but write with exquisite grammatical clarity.

Employing an understanding of grammar to compose with a distinct and effective writing style appears to be related to the functioning of what is often called meta-cognition, which involves the ability to monitor your own thinking.  Meta-cognition is much like the ability to make a judgment about the quality of effectiveness of one’s own learning or expression.

English instruction from Kindergarten through high school focuses on writing grammatically correct sentences without much attention to the effect the structure of the sentence creates.  There is nothing wrong with working on grammar in isolation from style. Doing so probably allows students a greater ability to focus on particular issues and to gain a better understanding of the mechanics behind their own writing. A problem arises when grammar instruction becomes an issue of correctness rather than issue of writing style and clarity of thought.

My Upcoming Dissertation–The Universal Bad Grammar

Much of grammar instruction is little more than making certain unconscious grammatical structures into conscious grammatical and stylistic strategies. I know a little next to nothing about Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, but I know he argues for the presence of a Universal Grammar in everyone’s brian which provides the basic cognitive structures for acquiring language.

I have been able to get some sense of the innate abilities of students to recognize core grammatical structures from giving this little quiz to my students on the first day:

Which two of the following sentences are fragments?

  1. When we left for the bus stop.
  2. We left for the bus stop.
  3. Susan became.

My students can usually identify both 1 and 3 as fragments and will usually say that something is missing from these two sentences. That sounds nice. So far. And it shows that students do seem to have a grammatical sense of what comprises a sentences and what does not. One point for Chomsky.

What happens next is how I am going to earn my Ph.D. at MIT some day. Someone pipes in with, “They’re not complete thoughts.”

Most student say something about how the first example does not tell you what happened “when” the bus stopped. And most students would know that the third example does not tell you what Susan “became.” Something is missing in both cases, but I have yet to find a student who can explain what is missing in the first and third examples.

Such a definition of a sentences is more than a little bit silly for many reason, but one of the primary reasons is that a student never knows what a complete thought actually is. I hear definitions such as “something is missing,” but, as all good deconstructionists know, something is always missing in language.

This definition of a sentence is both universal and totally wrong. In my dissertation, I am going to call this definition of a sentence the Primary Cause in the Universal Bad Grammar because it seems to be the core bad grammar rule every student holds onto from previous grammar instruction. (I will get to the many bad comma rules and their role in the UBG another day).

This bad rule gives students this mistaken sense that grammatical structures are not logical but are instead intuitive. Unfortunately most students latch on to these “rules” and have a hard time abandoning them when confronted with their limitations. This difficulty tells me that the attachment to these bad rules runs deeper than the attachment to other misconceptions students bring with them to college.

It seems we need to be aware of both the Universal Grammar all students bring with them, but also the Universal Bad Grammar they pick up along the way into our classrooms.

Anxiety Envy

My college offers classes that help students deal with math anxiety, and I imagine many other colleges offer similar classes for their students. I have taught math to basic skills students and know these classes are necessary. I have, however, never seen any classes offered for grammar anxiety.

Oddly enough this makes sense. Even though students come to the college with grammar skills in just as poor shape as their math skills, I have not seen students demonstrate the same levels of apprehension with English grammar as they have with math. It seems this situation is related to how the different subjects are perceived by the students.

Math is more intimidating and often seen as something of a foreign language that students cannot comprehend without careful study, while English grammar strikes students as being more familiar and is perceived as being a series of isolated rules.  A college course in English grammar should cover those rules that we all covered in high school, right?

Most students know that a partial understanding of a certain concept in mathematics can get you into a good deal of trouble since you get no credit for  a close but incorrect answer. There might be different approaches to factoring a polynomial or solving for y, but there is only one correct answer at the end of the problem. This idea that you need to learn it all before you can do the problem correctly is what makes some students anxious. In most cases, the anxiety can be alleviated by helping students learn how to break the problems down into workable segments that they can handle. There is no magic to this approach.

My sense is that students are not inherently more capable with English grammar than with mathematics. Students use English more often in daily conversations and in text messaging than they use basic math skills to pay bills or balance checkbooks, but these forms of English usage only act to reinforce simple grammatical structures and make learning grammar at a more sophisticated level more difficult. Chatting with your friends online or sending a few dozen text messages prepares students for understanding English grammar about as well as operating a cash register prepares students for college algebra.

Most students I work with come to a grammar class thinking they already know the English language because they have been using it for as long as they can remember. There really is no issue with anxiety since the students do not realize how little they know about the workings of their mother tongue and how wrong many of the “rules” they were taught in high school really are.

And that is why I am somewhat jealous of the math teachers who often confront a room with many students who are anxious about what they are about to learn. The students know that they do not understand math on the first day. They know learning math is more than memorizing a series of petty rules. And they know it is going to take practice to learn the material.

The students I work with often bring simple rules to the class regarding where to put commas or apostrophes, and these rules must be thrown out before the students can learn how the language actually works. Often these “rules” need to be thrown out again and again. If they do not master the new materials, they fall right back on the old useless “rules” they learned from a teacher who never bothered to show them how simple questions can often have more involved answers and require a more developed understanding.

And so I envy the math anxiety that many math teachers encounter on the first day. Anxiety is, at least, a sign that the students know learning the language is not such a simple matter and is going to require some effort.