Tuesday, January 17, 2017

W(h)ither grammar

David Mulroy, a classicist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, asked students in large mythology classes to paraphrase the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Mulroy offered the opportunity to paraphrase as an extra-credit option on an exam: two points for a “good-faith effort,” five points for an excellent paraphrase. About half the students took up the challenge. Sample results:
When dealing with events in life, one should drop preconceived knowings and assume that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and basically life goes on.

Cut your earthly bonds and wear the mantle of Nature and God. Wield the power and declare justly your ascension from man’s law. Then all shall bow before your might.

When man loses all political structure and is reverted back to tribal and instinctive nature, man should figure out what happened, so it won’t happen again.

It doesn’t matter where you came from. In the end we are all human beings. Humans are at the top of the food chain, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect nature. Because we have one earth, learn to preserve it.

David Mulroy, The War Against Grammar (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).
For Mulroy, such responses (which I’ve chosen as representative from the fourteen responses he cites) suggest “a kind of higher illiteracy,” that of students who speak proficiently and express themselves adequately in writing but who cannot work out the complexities of other people’s sentences:
This kind of illiteracy boils down to an ignorance of grammar. If a student interprets the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence as an exhortation to “preserve the earth,” then how can you demonstrate the error? There is no way to do so that does not involve grammatical analysis: the subject of the main clause is respect to the opinions of mankind, the main verb is requires, and so forth.
I’d add: a grasp of the sentence’s sense requires a recognition that its first fifty words form one long dependent clause.

How many problems in reading stem from an ignorance of basic grammar? I think back to a poem I often taught, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” and a difficult sentence that I always unpacked for students (lines 17–23). “It” is a piece of soot fluttering on a fireplace grate:
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
I realize now that what I was explaining to students was not just diction (methinks) and pronoun reference (whose) but the very grammar of the sentence: It seems to me that its motion, &c.

And how many problems in writing stem from an ignorance of basic grammar? A writer who doesn’t know the difference between a clause and a phrase, between an independent clause and a dependent clause, cannot reliably tell a sentence from a sentence fragment or understand what it means to subordinate one clause to another. And making sentences that are not merely adequate but that serve one’s purposes in writing depends at least in part on some understanding of grammar. See, for instance, Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style (2006).

I used to ask students in writing classes: What does it mean to go through twelve or more years of schooling and not be able to recognize a sentence in your language? There’s something rather crazy about that, no? I added (always) that the students themselves were not to blame. Mulroy’s book is especially useful in showing the background to this state of affairs: the educational theorizing (complete with “studies”) that cast instruction in grammar as harmful, as something contrary to the improvement of student writing.

My English teachers in middle school and high school must have not gotten the message: every year began with a review of basic grammar: parts of speech, phrases, clauses, kinds of conjunctions, on and on. We even diagrammed sentences. It was tiresome stuff. But so is any effort to lay a foundation.

Related reading
All OCA grammar posts (Pinboard)

[A 2008 statement from the National Council of Teachers of English acknowledges the importance of grammar instruction: “Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. . . . But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences.” The NCTE still stands by a 1985 resolution urging “the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.” Notice that the resolution casts grammar as distinct from “English language arts.”]

comments: 4

Fresca said...

I think this sums up where we find ourselves, come this Friday:

"When man loses all political structure and is reverted back to tribal and instinctive nature, man should figure out what happened, so it won’t happen again."

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for noticing that!

Steve said...

It is as though US students are completely unaware of how the USA came into being (independence from Great Britain). I do not so much get a sense of grammatical illiteracy as of political and historical ignorance.

Michael Leddy said...

How about both?

Any honest teacher of the humanities in the United States can confirm that many college students have enormous difficulty paraphrasing prose. Students often pick out words here or there to try to construct some sort of meaning.