Why Sentence Diagramming Does Not Make You Superior, An Argument In Support of Those Kids Today

I have been ranting today on the subject of grammar. It’s all Ann Leckie’s fault. Or possibly Jacqueline Howett’s.

For those of you who have not followed the blog explosion, self-published author Jacqueline Howett has been busy imploding in the blog comments of a reviewer who pointed out the grammatical errors in her text. Many people have commented on the obviously destructive behavior of flaming reviewers. However, in some fora the discussion has moved onto the subject of the grammatical errors themselves.

Howett, author of sentences such as “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance,” is adamant that there is nothing grammatically wrong with her prose. Obviously, she’s wrong.

Ann Leckie writes (and I agree with her):

Sometimes, when I read a sub that’s got sentences in it like this, I think, “Did this person write this sentence, and then say to themselves Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly how it ought to be, that sentence is good enough to be published in “My Life’s Ambition Is To Appear Here” magazine? Really?” I’m never sure if the subber thought those sentences were the bees knees, or whether they just figured “Eh, good enough,” when it wasn’t, or what.

The author’s insistence suggests to me that at least for some percentage of subbers, the answer is, “They see nothing wrong with those sentences.”

I’m quite happy to lay this at the feet of the pomposity of the kind of writer who would flame her reviewers. Others, however, want to diagnose this as part of a larger, pernicious social problem. In Ann Leckie’s comments, shalanna writes:

Unfortunately, the trend today is to reject people who write properly and to accept people who write incoherently. Punctuation is constantly under attack (not just “evolving,” but going out the door.) Prepare yourself for a whole lot more like her, and a lot fewer of the rest of us. We’re fossils, and THEY WILL SHOW US. *sigh*

The problem, apparently, isn’t just with publishers (who apparently… love grammatical incoherence…?) but also the educational system:

The author in question behaves much as she did in school, methinks–most students now, when given a poor grade, go over the teacher’s head and get it changed. Or they take their parents in and get it changed by some other higher-up who wants to keep the peace. She has never been corrected (or at least it never stuck), so why should she “take it” from you now? She’s perfect, and YOU can go stick it. So there.

In comments on Scalzi’s blog, Matthew Hughes agrees:

the author’s response — that she saw nothing wrong with her hobbledehoy syntax — illustrates a problem that I see as a sometime paid critiquer of would-be authors’ prose: the great majority of today’s adults have never been taught proper grammar and syntax, because their teachers themselves were never taught how to write well. For decades now, school children have been encouraged, above all, to express themselves. Imposing on that self-expression the rules that would make it more comprehensible to the reader has been deemed detrimental to the child’s creativity and self-esteem.

So now we have the phenomenon of the self-published author who produces clunky sentences whose meaning the reader has to puzzle out. When the clunkiness of Ms Howett’s prose is pointed out, she cannot see the problem — what she wrote makes perfect sense to her, after all — but she certainly resents the assault on her self-esteem.

I don’t know what we do about this. Short of a revolution — or, more accurately, a counterrevolution — in the classroom, it seems we must now slide into an era of ever-increasing fuzziness of speech and writing, leading inevitably to ever-increasing fuzziness of thought.

Mythago asks Matthew, “how many ‘decades’ and where, precisely, are schoolchildren being taught spelling and grammar are unimportant next to Free Expression? I’m always curious when the Good Old Days cutoff is.” Ann asks, similarly, “When was this golden age when elementary school English teachers were paragons of grammatical discipline, burning proper English (and there’s a whole other debate!) into the hearts and minds of their students, who went forth and spoke in flawless prose?”

Matthew replies:

Since you ask: two decades ago, in British Columbia, when my wife and I went to our kids’ elementary school’s open house and saw compositions by grade five and six students up on the wall. They were full of uncorrected grammatical errors. When we asked the teacher why she didn’t have the kids correct their mistakes before they were put up for (presumably) praise, we were told that formal grammatical rules were less important than encouraging free expression and sustaining the students’ self esteem.

That’s from my own experience. Now, working by inference, the huge number of supposedly educated people who say “between you and I” and don’t know how or when to use “whom” tells me that basic grammar is no longer taught.

Matthew Hughes and Shalanna would find a lot of historical support for their positions, but unfortunately, no one seems able to agree when the “Good Old Days” cutoff is. For Hesiod, it’s somewhere before 800 B.C:

When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.

For Tacitus, it’s 900 years later:

Nowadays… our children are handed over at their birth to some little Greek serving maid, with a male slave, who may be anyone, to help her.. it is from the foolish tittle-tattle of such persons that the children receive their first impressions, while their minds are still pliant and unformed… And the parents themselves make no effort to train their little ones in goodness and self-control; they grow up in an atmosphere or laxity and pertness, in which they come gradually to lose all sense of shame, and respect both for themselves and for other people.

Steve, from the internet, provided a link to a language log article articulating yet more opinions on when the Doom of Grammar fell upon us.

Interestingly, several commenters at Whatever and elsewhere have pointed out that Ms. Howett’s grammar school education appears to have occurred significantly after the Roman doom but significantly before the American one. It’s unclear how, having been schooled decades before the 1980s, Ms. Howett is nevertheless representative of the educational downfall that apparently occurred at that time.

The evidence-free assertion that we’re all going to hell in a bad-grammar handbasket grates for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the bizarre claims it suggests–everything from the idea that editors actively choose work with poor grammar to the belief that the poor grammar of a woman educated during the time period lauded for its grammatical accuracy nevertheless represents the superiority of that system over the grammatical indecency that followed.

As mythago observes, complaints about the good old days–from the Romans to Clark Welton–follow a generally predictable pattern. When was this golden age of grammatical discipline? “Why, that would be our generation, or perhaps our parents’ generation if we’re really trying to doom-and-gloom it up.”

But as annoying as those things are, what really bothers me is the classism and erasure inherent in the assumption that grammatical education was superior in the past. Whose grammatical education? Whose past?

Matthew Hughes writes that, “Forty-five years ago, when I started university, there were no remedial classes for the semiliterate.”

That’s supposed to be, what? A good thing? I’m supposed to be a fan of cutting off some portion of ESL students? Students with learning disabilities? Students who weren’t indoctrinated in “proper” white middle to upper class dialect/grammar at home and thus had a much harder learning task in school while simultaneously being disadvantaged by an educational culture structured for middle class white folks? Heck, I’m supposed to be a fan of cutting off students who just need extra help?

I tutored the “semiliterate” when I was in college. A few of them were kind of jerks. Some were very intelligent, but suffered from intense linguistic barriers, particularly those people whose first languages weren’t Indo-European. Some, despite their aptitude, had received intermittent education. Some came from school systems serving disadvantaged populations where resources were diverted away from average students in order to serve emergency needs, leaving us with students who were perfectly competent in some subjects while never before having been asked to write an essay.

I expect Matthew Hughes doesn’t want me to be a fan of excluding these students. I expect that his claim is that they didn’t exist, or at least not in significant numbers. There didn’t need to be classes that served them because they weren’t a significant population.

In one way he’s right–there may have been a time when such students did not comprise a significant portion of the college population. But that’s not because they didn’t exist. Students newly learning English, poor students, and ill-served students did exist 45 years ago or 100 years ago or however far back we wish to look for the golden age of education. But without resources for the “semiliterate,” what do you think happened to them? Not college.

I started my college education at an elite private school well-known for attracting excellent liberal arts students and placing an unusual emphasis on writing. Students came from the top ranks of high schools across the country. Nevertheless, I was one of only two students in my freshman class whose essay skills were deemed competent on entrance.

Sure, maybe that means my generation just sucks. I remember there being murmuring about that at the time, some from teachers, some probably from an ego-drunk me. Even elite students can’t even write an essay! What’s happening to education?

But if I sit back a minute and think about it, the argument falls apart. Both my parents are academically successful baby boomers who cut their teeth on sentence diagramming. I’ve edited their papers since high school. Like my peers, they are non-representatively high quality students. Yet I have no reason to believe they would have fared any better than my freshman classmates.

A generation before that, my ancestors were the kind of people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I doubt they were beacons of grammatical excellence. My immigrant great-grandfather (who worked in a garment factory) never learned English. Maybe these days, he or his grammatically imperfect children would get to take a remedial college course to address their “semiliteracy.” Forgive me if I don’t wish to return to the days when such remedial courses did not exist. Assuming those days aren’t a figment of the imagination (a subject on which there appears to be some debate), they are also the days when the majority of immigrants, poor people and others who didn’t meet the class and linguistic expectations of the ivory tower never got to enter it.

I’m being hard on Shalanna and Matthew Hughes. I realize that. I don’t mean this as a personal attack on them–I’m sure they’re both great people–but as a vehement disagreement with their arguments.

I also don’t mean to imply Shalanna and Matthew Hughes are the only people who hold these beliefs. Obviously, they’re extremely common, with quotes I’ve seen going back to the Romans. There are probably extant quotes from further back. I’ve definitely been involved in internet arguments with other people expressing similar opinions. I could probably find other people expressing similar opinions by just looking at blog threads about Ms. Howett. Their comments aren’t especially egregious. They didn’t say anything that particularly merits being drawn out as examples. It’s just that theirs were the comments that put the straw on my discursive back. And as I started typing this rant in the comments of Scalzi’s blog, I realized that what I had to say was broader than a blog comment.

So to the extent this reads as a reply to Shalanna and Matthew Hughes, that’s because it began as one. I hope it addresses larger points as well.

At heart, I want to interrogate the assumptions we make about who counts when we’re comparing today’s students to the students of yesteryear. I remain unconvinced that there has actually been any noticeable grammatical decay in the student population. But whether or not there has, it seems necessary for us to bear in mind who got to participate in yesteryear’s educational system and who was historically excluded or considered less than because of factors that, yes, sometimes relate to “semiliteracy.”

With that, I’ll end on a song:

Kids!
I don’t understand what’s wrong with these kids today!
Kids!
Who can understand anything they say?
…Why can’t they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What’s the matter with kids today?

This entry posted in Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Education. Bookmark the permalink. 

34 Responses to Why Sentence Diagramming Does Not Make You Superior, An Argument In Support of Those Kids Today

  1. 1
    vesta44 says:

    I went to grade school in the 60s and graduated in ’72. I didn’t go to college until 1982, and in my composition classes, my professors kept my papers to use as examples of how to write. They told me it wasn’t because I learned how to write in grade school or high school – they all said they could tell that I was an avid bookworm because I wrote like I everything I had read (and I read everything from classics to science fiction/fantasy to non-fiction). I didn’t understand at the time what they were talking about, but as I’ve gotten older, and read even more, I can see parts of my favorite authors’ styles in my writing. Maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with the way some people write – they don’t have enough of a wide variety of reading behind them to draw upon when writing.

  2. 2
    lilacsigil says:

    In my experience, young people who regularly use text messages and computers are more literate (in the sense of “being able to read, comprehend and provide information”, not in the sense of “writing novels”) than their grandparents, who rarely need to read anything more than numbers. This distinction is especially strong in men. And very few people, of any age, consistently use correct spelling!

  3. 3
    Melanie S. says:

    I was taught sentence diagramming in public school in 7th grade (1997). My teachers cared very much about proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (Also, they were fans of the Oxford comma.) Does my anecdote cancel out Matthew Hughes’s?

    Jacqueline Howett’s sentences seem just as easily explained by anosognosia. But, of course, that doesn’t open a door to a debate about the state of grammar education. If I agreed that this was a debate worth having, the intent in this particular case would be less relevant; since I don’t agree, it just seems a little silly.

    I wonder how much worse the Internet has made this kind of argument, as it gives lots of people the opportunity for unedited public writing who would never have had it before. (Sort of goes with your point about students denied access to college, etc.)

    And anyway, teaching a thing does not guarantee that the thing is learned.

    (Even though I disagree, this whole debate has me examining my own writing until I’m cross-eyed…)

  4. 4
    lilacsigil says:

    as it gives lots of people the opportunity for unedited public writing who would never have had it before

    I agree, and would also add that the internet also gives lots of people the need for frequent and context-specific reading than ever before! We haven’t had so much social interaction in text since the telephone came along, and considering literacy rates at that time, may never have had such a broad array of people communicating in print before.

  5. Pingback: The origins of comp/rhetoric and English composition | Alas, a Blog

  6. 5
    AndiF says:

    I have the evidence that pinpoints the downfall!

    In 1972 I was a T.A. whose job it was to run the special lab for semiliterate students who were failing freshman composition. The lab had been in existence since 1968.

    Since Matthew Hughes tells us that everything was just fine in 1966 (45 years ago) and I know things were not fine in 1968, the cutoff year must be 1967. Now all we have to do is identify what happened in 1967 to bring about the downfall of grammar.

    Since personal experience appears to be the key to this issue, I’m voting for mothers getting kids cars in order for them to schelp younger siblings to all their after school activities as that purchase definitely had some ill effects on my study habits (though not, fortunately, my grades).

  7. 6
    SMM says:

    Conveying information and ideas with precision and clarity, without benefit of non-verbal communication, is simply not possible without a set of protocols that both the writer and reader understand.

    Writing, when done well, should cut through the free-floating static and general chatter that is constantly running through our heads and deliver a message that is as closely in line with author’s intent as possible. Easy to say but enormously difficult to achieve, so why would you throw out the tools?

    I absolutely agree that people are communicating through the written word in huge numbers right now, but are they communicating effectively? How many of those spectacular BLOG/message board trainwrecks are born out of, and perpetuated by, misunderstood or poorly crafted written communications?

  8. 7
    Mandolin says:

    Who, exactly, is advocating “throwing out the tools?”

  9. 8
    Melanie S. says:

    SMM, I haven’t seen anybody say that the rules of grammar are unimportant to communication. Instead I’m taking issue with people who set up a false dichotomy between an idealized past in which everyone could write perfect English and a present in which grammar is not taught at all. They’re both annoying and wrong, as Mandolin details in the post (not least because of the excellent point that their example bad-grammar writer was educated in the supposed good old days).

    Hewett’s writing is bad. Nobody I’ve seen says it’s good except Hewett herself. I’ve only seen people taking issue with the idea that Hewett’s writing is bad because of some failure of our educational system, rather than a failure of the author herself.

  10. 9
    SMM says:

    No one, actually.

    Apologies; after re-reading the OP I realize that my comment was only peripherally related (at best) to the actual topic of discussion.

    Reading comprehension is nice too :)

  11. 10
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I want to thank you for linking to those amazingly interesting and entertaining threads. I only just managed to avoid spitting coffee on my keyboard when I read this one:

    I wouldn’t read your book now if it came with a free puppy.

    Best put-down ever.

  12. 11
    SMM says:

    Melanie S: You are correct, my mistake.

  13. 12
    Mandolin says:

    SSM,

    No worries. It happens. :D

  14. 13
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    When was this golden age of grammatical discipline?

    I don’t know the dates. But I am fairly certain that sometime in (I think) the last 10-40 years, the pedagogy which was taught to educators changed somewhat w/r/t grammar.

    For example, when I was a kid in elementary school, our writing assignments were routinely corrected for spelling. These days that seems to be somewhat less common. Similarly, I don’t think I ever got an assignment that said “just ignore spelling and grammar and let the writing flow;” my kids get those with some frequency. My understanding is that this reflects a change in the educational philosophy, just as some math has become more constructivist.

    Does that difference have any effect on the result? I’ll be damned if I know. Perhaps people end up possessing better grammar skills as a result of the modern system, even if they seem to be getting less instruction. Brains are weird.

    That said, I have noticed some decline in grammar and writing ability…. but not as much as you would think. I helped grade papers in college, and was constantly astounded at the inability of many of my peers to produce a legible sentence. There was no golden age in my lifetime.

    My own guess is that changes are related to the quantity and quality of exposure–it is more social than academic. People do not read as much as they used to; people write less than they used to; and the material that they read and write tends to be shorter and less involved–Twitter, MSN messenger, texting, etc. When I was a kid I wrote letters. These days they text. Etc.

  15. 14
    mythago says:

    gin-and-whiskey @13: “10 to 40 years”? Corrected “somewhat less frequently”? You’re right back in the territory of Kids These Days, particularly with the “people don’t read as much as they used to”. (And when was that Golden Age of Reading?)

    Yes, I’m being snarky. I would like discussions about language deficits and helping people communicate effectively to be something other than “here’s an argument I can drag out to prop up my favorite hobbyhorse”, whether that be Librul Teachers Spoiling Them Children, or the work ethic of certain demographics, or how schools have suddenly come to hate little boys, or whatever.

  16. 15
    nm says:

    Huh. When I first began my college experience, 40 years ago, at a fairly prestigious midwestern university, all in-coming students were expected to take a composition course that covered all the basics, unless they tested out of it. So it seems to me that the default, even then, was that we’d need some drill.

  17. 16
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    mythago says:
    March 30, 2011 at 8:08 am

    gin-and-whiskey @13: “10 to 40 years”?

    Um, yeah. I don’t know. Would you rather I guess?

    Corrected “somewhat less frequently”?

    How is that statement confusing to you?

    I’m just trying to raise the point that the pedagogy-of-the-moment has changed slightly with respect to grammar and spelling instruction, as well as w/r/t writing instruction. But I’m not an expert on the particular subject.

    You’re right back in the territory of Kids These Days, particularly with the “people don’t read as much as they used to”.

    This response is ridiculous.

    Look, the phrase “KTD” has been around for thousands of years. And you know why? because it’s RIGHT, to some degree. Society changes; kids change; customs change. The part of KTD which suggests that “all change is bad” makes no sense. But your position (which seems to be “since KTD is old as time, and since all change isn’t bad, things haven’t changed”) ALSO makes no sense.

    (And when was that Golden Age of Reading?)

    I’m not talking about a golden age. I’m talking about RELATIVE changes. (and not to be too snarky, but I actually wrote “there was no golden age in my lifetime” as part of my post. If I wanted to talk about a golden age, I’d have said so.)

    Relative changes are important. If you elect to view this in black and white terms, you will (deliberately?) obscure any minor changes.

    For example: not everyone read before TV, and plenty of people still read after TV. But compared to the pre-TV age, people are more likely these days to spend time watching TV; that competes with time reading a book. And of course they are also more likely to spend time on a PC; that competes for time as well.

    These are relevant, even if they don’t represent 100% sea changes in behavior.

    Yes, I’m being snarky. I would like discussions about language deficits and helping people communicate effectively to be something other than “here’s an argument I can drag out to prop up my favorite hobbyhorse”, whether that be Librul Teachers Spoiling Them Children, or the work ethic of certain demographics, or how schools have suddenly come to hate little boys, or whatever.

    Which is why I didn’t do that.

    The reality is that we’ve been changing since we were human. but looking at the change and determining that we should therefore not consider gradual change to be relevant makes no sense.

  18. 17
    Ampersand says:

    The reality is that we’ve been changing since we were human. but looking at the change and determining that we should therefore not consider gradual change to be relevant makes no sense.

    Obviously, some things have changed, but that doesn’t establish that the particular changes people are complaining about — people reading less, grammar getting worse — have actually happened.

    For example: not everyone read before TV, and plenty of people still read after TV. But compared to the pre-TV age, people are more likely these days to spend time watching TV; that competes with time reading a book. And of course they are also more likely to spend time on a PC; that competes for time as well.

    PCs compete with reading books on paper, but do they compete with reading? That’s not so clear. Frankly, it seems to me that I spend a lot less time watching TV now that I can read the internet instead.

    And certainly, people spent more time watching TV after TV was invented. :-D But did they spend more or less time reading overall? In 1920, there was no TV, but washing machines were also a relatively rare luxury item. In 1945, both TV and washing machines were commonplace; so yes, we now had the choice of TV or reading for our leisure time, but we ALSO had more leisure time than before. (I linked to an interesting short lecture about washing machines in the most recent link farm, btw.)

    Also, I think TV competed a lot more with radio listening than with book reading; there are still a ton of books published in the decades after TV comes out, but radio shows (particularly game shows and fiction) went on a huge decline post-TV.

    So it’s not self-evident that the rise of TV means there was a concurrent decline in reading.

  19. 18
    Ruchama says:

    For example, when I was a kid in elementary school, our writing assignments were routinely corrected for spelling. These days that seems to be somewhat less common. Similarly, I don’t think I ever got an assignment that said “just ignore spelling and grammar and let the writing flow;” my kids get those with some frequency. My understanding is that this reflects a change in the educational philosophy, just as some math has become more constructivist.

    Throwing in a bit more anecdata — I’m 30. I can’t really remember the younger grades as much, but we definitely had assignments like that in fourth through sixth grades. Almost always, though, they were called “pre-writing” — the point was to figure out what you wanted to say first, and get it written down so that you have a record of it, and then go back and figure out how to say it later. Those things with spelling and grammar ignored were almost never the final copy — there were usually at least two more drafts after that.

    (I can’t remember learning much English grammar formally — we’d have worksheets and lessons and “Today, we’re learning the difference between a direct object and an indirect object” every once in a while, but I can’t remember ever thinking of grammar as a formal subject. They tried to get us to diagram sentences once in sixth grade, and everybody got totally frustrated, so that was abandoned. Senior year of high school, our AP English teacher would give us two grades on each essay: a letter grade for the content of the essay, and a number grade for grammar and spelling. The number grade started out at 100 and he took off two points for each grammar or spelling error. I was one of the few students who consistently got 98 or 100 for the number grade, and that was almost entirely because my mother has always been a stickler for proper grammar. Even when I was really little, if I asked “Can Jessie and me go ride our bikes?” or something like that, the answer from her would be, “You may when you ask properly.” Once I asked “May Jessie and I go ride our bikes?” she’d say yes.)

  20. 19
    Mythago says:

    @gin-and-whiskey: “10 to 40 years” IS a guess. As Amp points out, the fact that people change is not evidence that a particular change actually happened. Speculation isn’t evidence, either. (Perhaps the advent of computers means MORE reading; after all, you can now have a book sent instantly to your Kindle.)

    People also don’t change as much as we imagine. I have seen a 2000+ year old letter, from an Egyptian boy to his father, saying that if his father (who is traveling) does not send for his son immediately, the boy will hold his breath until he turns blue.

  21. 20
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    efore I answer this, let me raise the class issue, because I think a lot of this has to do with class. When we judge historical %ages of readers or %ages of good grammarians, we’re making class links without knowing it.

    The farther back in time you go, the more likely it is that people of lower class, nonwhites, and people who weren’t considered good candidates would be tracked out, pushed into vocational school or simply excluded from higher education through bigotry. And the more that that happened, the more that the resulting pool would match the wealthy, educated, majority–who, as it happens, are the very people who get to define “good grammar.”

    So it’s quite possible that historical memories of “students were better then” are accurate, insofar as the sampling pool was different.

    Ampersand says:
    March 30, 2011 at 10:52 am
    Obviously, some things have changed, but that doesn’t establish that the particular changes people are complaining about — people reading less, grammar getting worse — have actually happened.

    I don’t have enough evidence to be certain I’m right.

    That said, this isn’t a game where “not A = B.” I also have not seen evidence to prove that things are (or were) consistent, other than the irrelevant consistency of KTD.

    PCs compete with reading books on paper, but do they compete with reading? That’s not so clear. Frankly, it seems to me that I spend a lot less time watching TV now that I can read the internet instead.

    Sure. But the stuff you read on the internet is different. In fact, even TV is different.

    Haven’t you had the experience of watching a current animation show, and feeling like your head will pop due to the constant scene changes and cuts and short frames? Haven’t you noticed that even the TV news shows are more choppy?

    that isn’t your imagination.

    And the same with the internet. You’re reading this, sure. But my grammar isn’t perfect even when I sit and edit it; it is certainly worse when I’m just replying to a blog post. So although you’re reading, the stuff you are reading is different.

    So it’s not self-evident that the rise of TV means there was a concurrent decline in reading.

    I agree. But it’s worth discussing.

  22. 21
    Vidya says:

    “Matthew Hughes writes that, ‘Forty-five years ago, when I started university, there were no remedial classes for the semiliterate.’”

    The problem, IMHO, isn’t that remedial classes are happening now, it’s that they are *not* happening now. I don’t know of a single university in Canada that requires any sort of entrance exam (including SATs, which aren’t used here) or evaluation of incoming undergraduate students’ writing abilities. I know of none that requires remedial courses in writing, or even of ones at which there is something like a ‘freshman comp’ course available (or at least popular enough that I know of its existence). So students show up in my classes unable to write coherently, and have no recourse to learn other than voluntarily seeking out help from the campus writing centre — which most don’t. I try to offer some writing advice in my own classes, but this often comes at the expense of content-related help and instruction.

    Ruchima: “Those things with spelling and grammar ignored were almost never the final copy — there were usually at least two more drafts after that.”

    Yes, this. Exactly. One of the main problems is that many of my students seem to regard their first draft as their final draft, even for heavily grade-weighted research papers.

    The decline in writing skills surely does reflect the changing demographics of the student body, but also reflects, as others have noted, a lack of exposure to high-quality literature from which one may absorb sophisticated patterns of language-use, as well as the influence of changing approaches to teaching writing in grade school.

  23. 22
    vesta44 says:

    Having been out of school for more years than I care to count, I don’t have a clue what books teachers are giving as reading assignments today. I know that when I was in school, we read Tom Sawyer, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities. I know there were more than that, but those are the ones I remember. On my own, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays, the collected works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and books like Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Little Women, etc. Most of those I read in grade school and junior high – they were in the school libraries and I spent a lot of time in the library, reading. Those were all considered classic literature when I was growing up, and my parents bought me a set of 15 classics for Christmas when I was 10 that included the last 4 books I listed. I do remember that most of the kids I went to school with considered me strange because I read so much and had already read most of the books we were assigned to read (they thought it wasn’t fair that I had a head start by already knowing what the book was about before they did).

  24. 23
    Nick from the O.C. says:

    Ah, sentence diagramming. I remember sentence diagramming in Mrs. White’s junior English class. (It was 1978, if you must know.)

    When sentence diagramming came up, I gave it a try. It wasn’t for me–at all. I told Mrs. White that she should give me an ‘F’ for that part of the class, because I wasn’t going to be participating or doing any related homework. Turns out I could write okay–good enough to be one of 11 students exempted from Freshman Lit in my elite liberal arts college. So thanks for bringing back memories of high school English class….

    Final point: why has nobody connected the fall of grammar and composition to the rise of the “new math” in the sixties? I mean, since we’re going there and all.

  25. 24
    nobody.really says:

    HI-YO, HI-YO, DISCERNIBLE TODAY
    (A Song After Reading Toynbee)

    Has it come to your attention how the race of man
    Has been climbing upwards since time began,
    How it’s been climbing steady, and it’s climbing there still,
    But every time you notice it, it’s going down hill?

    Chorus
    Going downhill is the natural way,
    For the old folks work and the young folks play,
    And the pioneer morals universally decay -
    Yet definite improvement is discernible today!
    Hi-yo, hi-yo, discernible today!

    Now there’s been a quite demonstrable and healthy gain
    In higher mathematics and the size of the brain,
    Between us and the oyster there were great strides made -
    But every time you look at us, we’re slipping down grade.

    Chorus
    Going downhill is the natural trend,
    For the old folks gather and the young folks spend,
    Yet line up all our forebears on the path that we descend
    And a definite improvement is apparent at this end!
    Hi-yo, hi-yo, apparent at this end!

    The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks and Romans, too,
    Hung up some fancy records when their world was new,
    And some they hung so high the boys are shooting at them still -
    But they saw themselves continually going down hill.

    Chorus
    Going downhill is the way things run,
    For the old have illusions and the young have fun,
    And our manners and religions everlastingly decay,
    Yet astonishing improvement is discernible today!
    Hi-yo, hi-yo, discernible today!

    Maxwell Anderson, The New Yorker (May 8, 1948) at 26.

  26. When I teach the grammar course offered at my college, I teach sentence diagramming. Students start out thinking they are going to hate the course; most of them end up not only having enjoyed, but feeling like they learned something. What, precisely, the students have learned, though, is a more complex question than it might seem. One of the first things I tell my grammar classes is that if they are expecting to improve their writing through the study of grammar, they are going to be very disappointed. Neither learning how to diagram sentences nor learning to recite and apply the rules for everything from subject verb agreement to the punctuation of restricted adjective clauses will substitute for the sustained practices of reading and writing that are the only way truly to develop as a writer. What sentence diagramming does teach is a method of analysis, a kind of critical thinking that can give some insight into how language works. So, for example, I usually start the semester by asking students how many meanings they can find in the following sentence:

    The boy hit the dog with a fish.

    Then I ask them to do the same thing with this one:

    The boy hit the dog with a dish in a box.

    The discussion is often very funny because most people, especially those who don’t spend their days working with language in one way or another, have never really given much thought not just to the fact that ambiguous sentences exist, but also to how it is even possible that one string of words can have multiple meanings. When I get to the lesson on how to diagram prepositional phrases, I return to these sentences and show how diagramming allows one to represent visually the different relationships between and among the prepositional phrases and the rest of the sentence and how those different relationships result in the different possible meanings.

    As part of this lesson, of course, and without going into too much detail, I explain to my students the linguistic concept of deep structure, the point being to show them that sentence diagramming is not merely an abstract exercise, but that it can be used to explain things about language. And in at least two or three of the last five or six times I have taught the course, I have been gratified to have students come to class with stories of how they used diagramming to show their employers that a sentence in company literature or in a letter the company was going to send out was ungrammatical.

    Another thing I find is that students in these classes, not all, but a good number, feel a real sense of empowerment in an area of their intellectual/academic lives that has typically, and stereotypically, made them feel inferior. Whether or not knowing how to diagram changes the way they approach grammaticality when they speak or write–and I am not suggesting that it should–they feel more confident in their ability to work with language; and that feeling is an important foundation of actually being able to speak and write competently. And I suppose I should be clear that the commnity college students I am teaching in these classes, while not remedial, do tend to be in the middle to lower end of the ability/grade range when it comes to writing.

    All of which is to say that I think there is real value in teaching grammar, though not the value attached to it by the traditional way of seeing “proper” grammar as a marker of class, status, education, etc. (By the way, for anyone who is interested, the linguist William Labov did some of the first pioneering work in studying the way “proper” grammar functions socially and culturally as a marker of class, etc.) More, while I doubt there was ever a “good old days” when everyone who had a grade school education, where proper grammar was of course a major component of the curriculum, always spoke and wrote “correctly,” it is true that pedagogy concerning the value of teaching grammar has flip-flopped at least once, if not twice, since I was in grade school. There was a time, and it more or less corresponded to when I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, when attention to grammar was considered anathema in teaching people to write; and while I bought wholeheartedly into that way of thinking at the time, I now think that something valuable was lost. As a rule, I think–because there are always exceptions–teachers who were trained as I was did not teach, and so students did not learn, how to pay attention not merely to the overall meaning of a sentence and whether or not it was clear, etc., but how to understand how that unclear meaning was produced, what happened in the sentence itself, in the relationship(s) between and among the words, phrases and clauses to create the lack of clarity or ambiguity or sometimes outright absurdity that made the sentence problematic.

    That kind of attentiveness does not require an explicit knowledge of, say, how to form adverbial phrases properly, but it does require the ability to see a sentence as a kind of “meaning machine” and to understand how to manipulate the parts of that machine competently. I don’t particularly care whether you acquire that ability primarily through voracious reading or through formal grammatical study or some combination of both, but that ability signifies, to me anyway, a facility with grammar and that kind of facility with grammar.

    Students already at the high end of the grade/ability scale might not need this kind of “meaning machine” instruction, but my own experience is that students at the middle to low end of the scale can and do benefit from it in a variety of ways.

  27. 26
    Ampersand says:

    Hmmm….

    The boy hit the dog by holding a fish in his hands and swinging the fish, bringing it into contact with the dog.

    The boy, confronted with several dogs, hit the one that was carrying a fish.

    The boy and the fish, acting in concert, hit the dog.

    The boy had sex with the fish. (This meaning is achieved by pronouncing “hit the dog” lecherously and with much wagging of eyebrows, and perhaps even a hand gesture.) (Okay, that one’s kind of cheating.)

    I can’t see any more meanings to the first sentence. Anyone else?

    (I’ve always liked the phrase “time flies like an arrow” for this.)

  28. 27
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Amp, what I really want to know is why you’re focusing on ghoti rather than dishes. ;)

  29. When I first studied transformation grammar, we used these:

    1. Flying planes can be dangerous.
    2. Visiting relatives can be boring.

  30. 29
    chingona says:

    I don’t have any teaching experience, but I really liked everything Richard had to say @ 25. That really sounds right to me – that understanding how a sentence comes together and being able to say what’s wrong with a sentence that doesn’t work are good skills to have.

    As many of you know, I’m a newspaper reporter, so I write for a living. My college studies included a fairly intense grammar course, and I consider myself pretty fluent. But even I make mistakes, particularly when I’m in a hurry. I have a cherished memory of the time I used “bare” when I should have used “bear” and received not one, but two, phone calls from retired English teachers accusing me, personally, of being responsible for the downfall of civilization.

    It was really embarrassing because I certainly know the difference and I should have got it right, and either the desk editor or the copy desk should have picked it up when I didn’t. And yet … I did want to tell both those fine ladies to get a grip.

    About these kids today … I do sometimes have a very hard time understanding the writing of younger people who text a lot. There was a blog I used to check out occasionally that involved body image and pregnancy/birth/postpartum stuff, and at some point it started to attract a much younger audience. The submissions became nearly unintelligible to me. On the other hand, I don’t have a good way to compare it to the writing of people with a similar educational background from previous generations, so I’m not going to wring my hands too much about it.

  31. 30
    Mandolin says:

    I received some formal grammar education; it was nice. We did some sentence diagramming, although not as intensely as the diagramming my mom used to talk about. I do feel that it improved my writing or at least gave me a different sense of how to manipulate sentences that I could add to my existing instinctual one.

    I’m not sure where my post suggested I was opposed to education in grammar. But perhaps no one meant to suggest that. I don’t know. I’m sick and my reading comprehension sucks today.

  32. 31
    chingona says:

    @ Mandolin … speaking for myself, I didn’t think you were against grammar education. I think the discussion is about the topic in general at this point.

  33. Pingback: The Best Stories I Wrote (And Didn’t Write) This Week | an/archivista

  34. 32
    Dan Waters says:

    I think I just fell in love with you a whole lot more (usually a lurker). I was a semi-ESL student; I spoke Portuguese and English fluently as a child. However, in school I was given a speech language pathologist to BURN THE PORTUGUESE OUT OF ME and speak and write proper English. I quickly gained respect from teachers, who were ever the gatekeepers of knowledge and thus success, by using such. Since my peers disliked the fact I was different (see: biracial, multi-lingual, and apparently ‘creepy’), I sought out exceedingly proper English to fill my little heart in elementary and middle school.
    Then I grew a pair, and said, fuck classism, racism, sexism, etc. And here I am today.