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?
- When we left for the bus stop.
- We left for the bus stop.
- 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.