Category Archives: Grammar

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.

Thinking In and About Phrases

Phrases are probably the most essential unit of language but so little is written about them.

One of my professors at UC Irvine wrote a books called The Differend, which placed the phrase not just at the center of writing but at the center of what is. Doing this always struck me as somewhat odd since words were smaller units and letters even smaller still. But he was not writing about the units we have broken our language down into as much as he was writing about the units of thought.

We just do not think word by word. We think in phrases and sometimes in clauses. This is where I think much of the discussion and instruction in grammar misses the mark. Without a doubt we run into problems at the level of individual words. We misspell words, not phrases and clauses. We look up words in the dictionary, not phrases and clauses. We search for just the right word, but rarely struggle with just the right phrase or clause. And we mock people who misuse words in the speech, not people who speak in phrases or dependent clauses.

People who write well tend to be able to compose not in words or even in sentences but in phrases that come to mind. I do not think in words. That would be silly and would result in a fairly scatter brained approach to both thinking and writing. And I do not usually think in well developed clauses. I usually do not know, for example, how a sentence is going to end when I have begun writing it. My mind thinks phrase by phrase. It might have words at its disposal and some notion of what kind of clause is going to come out at the end of all this cognition, but my thoughts tend to find themselves connecting phrase to phrase.

The centrality of phrases in thought can probably best be seen in the corrections we make to our own writing. There are usually a few errors in usage or spelling we correct as we compose, but it is far more common to erase or move or add whole phrases.

For this reason I see grammar instruction as misguided when it spends so much time on correcting the usage of words rather than the composition of phrases. We focus too much on the correctness of words rather than the style of the clauses and phrases that we write. Our thinking and our selves are not so well shown by the words we choose as they are by the phrases and clauses we use.

By moving away from words and on to phrases and clauses, we cannot get away from the issues of style that these units of writing bring up. It is in style that we probably have a better chance of getting students to think about how they think and how they write. Word choice has a good deal to do with style, but words also bring baggage with them. They are more often going to be corrected for being right or wrong. If we spend more time on phrases and clauses, we can spend more time on style and how it affects the reception of our writing. Style becomes the organizing principle of grammar.

Words Do Matter, But Not That Much

The most important elements of grammar have less to do with words than most people seem to think. Making correct word usage less important would allow grammar instruction to start working with the structure of our thinking and the development of our writing style.

The correct usage of words makes up a great deal of grammar instruction, but a word alone means next to nothing without the words immediately surrounding it. Most people think and speak in phrases and clauses, not words. Music works in much the same way in that a note suggests very little in nearly all cases, but a few played together create a tune and our minds begin to pay attention and hum the tune that musical phrase suggested.

When students become more adept at utilizing phrases and clauses, much of writing becomes significantly easier. The odd thing is that as grammar instruction progresses beyond identifying the basic parts of speech students are often encouraged to focus more and more on specialized issues with words rather than moving on to issues with phrases and clauses. They are essentially encouraged to become lexicographers rather than writing stylists.

This turns the focus away from the production of ideas and the communication of information and towards the generation of words. Many students who want to write well often get the mistaken idea that the use of unfamiliar vocabulary is the surest way to do so.

Many grammar books and blogs encourage this approach by focusing on the usage of words rather than the effects of style. They often explain the complex histories of words and their uses with an enviable precision. The Gramarphobia blog, for example, does an excellent job of responding to questions and explaining particular issues that students and professionals run into quite frequently. The blog is undeniably one of my favorites because it is well written and shows a sense humor about these nuances between words and their quirky histories. But I also wonder how useful it is for students who want to write well rather than use certain words correctly.

Even when it is done incredibly well and with a playful and disarming style, such an approach to grammar can be quite intimidating, even for someone with a degree or two in English. For someone with limited knowledge of grammar and no real interest in the minutiae of the English language, grammar instruction becomes a long procession of rules for when to use “it’s” rather than “its” or when to use “lie” rather than “lay.”

These distinctions in word usage are important to grammar instruction but only if they come up frequently enough in most people’s writing. Too often they do not. The writing problems that come up more often for students and professionals deal with issues of phrases and clauses and are more closely connected to issues of style. These issues are always rooted in grammar, but to become better writers, students need to understand how their thoughts are constructed and can be reconstructed with phrases and clauses, and to develop that knowledge means developing an understanding of how grammar and style work together.

A Comma “Rule” that Must Die

I suspect that many students do not learn much about English grammar because their English teachers do not know much about English grammar. Grammar has too many exceptions to too many rules which make it a little too likely that the teachers will be caught in an embarrassing moment where they do not know the answer to a seemingly simple question. The solution becomes ignoring the topic all together or treating it in a cursory manner while making up ridiculous “rules.”

The “rule” that probably does the most damage is the “put-a-comma-whenever-you-hear-a-pause” rule. I hate this rule because it is not only wrong, but it teaches students that grammar is intuitive rather than logical. A bigger problem is that this rule sticks. Students forget just about everything else they hear about grammar, but they remember this “rule.” It’s simple, and it seems to make sense.

The problem is that it makes no sense if you know anything about grammar.  It makes the logic of grammar into an arbitrary set of “rules” that can be applied in any way the writer seems to think makes sense. One writer might pause here while another might pause there, and no attention is given to the structure of the language. In the backs of their minds, I suspect that students know this “rule” is meaningless, but pushing their teachers on the subject would make for a longer day and a more complicated lesson.

Students end up internalizing this meaningless “rule” and examine their sentences for these pauses that might or might not be there.  The result is a fairly random approach to using commas and a good deal of frustration about writing.

What seems to be happening is that students are learning to confuse an approach they should be taking to style with an approach they are taking to grammar. Style should avoid giving absolute rules and should rely on the intuition of the writer. Grammar should not. It needs to be logical, and students need to recognize that logic in the their own writing and the writing of others.