Category Archives: Universal Bad Grammar

Misconceptions and Refutations in Grammar Textbooks

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent study from a group of researchers based at the University of Cyprus that examines the differences between expository and refutation writing for teaching college students about scientific concepts.

The study is fairly involved and has a number of nuances that are beyond the scope of this entry, but basically the researchers take two groups of students and have them read one of two different pieces about how energy works in physics. The researchers picked this topic because energy is something that students often have trouble understanding or come up with misconceptions to explain situations around them that seem to use energy. Many students, for example, see energy as akin to a natural force or believe it has mass that can be seen in a microscope or measured with a scale.

The first group was given an expository text written in much the way textbooks are written while the second group was given a refutation text written in much the same manner as the first but with refutations of common misconceptions about energy at certain key places. The refutation texts were slightly longer but they did not provide extra information, but instead simply debunked common misconceptions about energy.

The abilities of students to understand the core concepts regarding energy were essentially the same in both groups, but the students reading the refutation texts tended to be better at making inferences about energy and its application to situations. This difference was especially pronounced among students who were assessed as having very little knowledge about energy or as having knowledge that was made up primarily of misconceptions. The students who started the study with lower levels of knowledge about energy and physics in general were prone to making poor inferences and were easily confused by situations that required application of the knowledge to a concrete situation. Could you, for example, see the energy within sugar with a microscope?

To me, this was interesting.

Students of grammar come to class with a great number of misconceptions about how the language works and what learning grammar is supposed to involve. Misconceptions seem to be more common and more deeply rooted than actually understandings. There is, of course, the comma rule that is not a rule (“Put a comma wherever there is a pause”); then there is the clear and concise definition of a sentence that makes no sense (“A sentence is a complete thought”); and, there are many many others that students have picked up from well meaning family members and poorly educated English teachers. All these misconceptions add up to a great deal of interference when the students are trying to learn this messy language.

I see the research as having application to grammar instruction not only because of the number of misconceptions students bring with them but also because it showed how useful refutation writing is for developing the ability to make inferences. The reality is that knowing grammar is not all that impressive if it cannot be applied directly to writing more effectively.

Oddly enough refutations of common misconceptions rarely make it into the basic grammar books. There are plenty of books out there that deal with how silly many of the “rules” that English teachers have come up with over the years are, but the books are written by linguists for other linguists and never make it into the textbooks students use.

The teachers tend to use textbooks that answer certain questions and resolve the issues that students bring to class without taking the time to explain how arbitrary many of these “rules” actually are. There are plenty of books by linguists that blow holes right through these “rules” but there are no books that I am aware of that balance the need to teach students how to use the language but make them aware that these rules are really just useful conventions.

Knowledge of these misconceptions has been around for quite some time. Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Joseph Williams and many others have written about the nature of “error” in student writing decades ago, but the students do not have their error patterns directly addressed in the textbooks themselves. A more direct approach to the misconceptions students have would make teaching them new concepts all that easier. No major rewrite of the grammar textbooks would be needed. Just a revision, a revision that would incorporate refutations of the many misconceptions students already have on the first day of class.

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.