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Maybe you COULD teach English

At Language Log, a post on Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One gives Professor Fish a moderate thumping for his reliance on grade-school grammar terms instead of more sophisticated analysis of syntax. But the real interest develops in the comments.

There the commonplace observation that students wind up at college innocent of an understanding of grammar and syntax gives way to some suggestions.

John Lawler attached a pdf of a term paper by Melissa Demyanovich, one of his students at Michigan, that describes a proposed language arts curriculum for elementary and secondary school that is sensitive to linguistics while developing a more sophisticated understanding of writing than the old ram-them-with-grammar approach, which traditionalists love but which never worked all that well for most students. You should have a look at it.

And I liked a comment from Spell Me Jeff so much that I’d like to reproduce it here:

“There is no point in teaching the grammar of a linguistic system to children who do not use that system with a high level of sophistication. One acquires such a level of sophistication by using the language. In particular, since English-speaking folks provide grammatical instruction in the written form of the language, one should be a highly competent reader of the language before beginning any program of grammatical study.

“In other words, if a kid enjoys reading and by 5th grade has consumed 1000 books or so (from Dr. Suess to Harry Potter), grammatical instruction will mostly seem to remind him of things he already knows but did not have a vocabulary for. It might also polish up a few loose ends. But it will not, repeat will not, teach that fifth grader to use the language correctly. He (and most likely his family) have already handled that job.

“If, on the other hand, by 5th grade a kid has avoided reading anything more sophisticated than text messages and the satellite television menu, then formal grammar instruction will feel like so much child abuse. If it leaves any lasting impression at all, it is more likely to be deleterious than salutary, and stands a good chance of turning him against formal education in general.

“Actually, a 5th grader in such circumstances is still salvageable if emergency action is taken; a 9th grader less so; while a freshman in college is lost, lost, lost.

“When I say such things to legislators and so on, the usual objection is something like, ‘But they need to use correct English.’"

“To which a suitable reply might be, ‘Yes. And trees dying in the desert needto walk 500 miles to the nearest river. Sadly, you cannot teach trees this skill.’"



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 PM | | Comments (13)


First thing to say is that someone who thinks in the English language should not perpetrate that nasty, foul, vile use of "child abuse" as an attempted witticism. And, Mr McIntye, I would have reacted it.

“If, on the other hand, by 5th grade a kid has avoided reading anything more sophisticated than text messages and the satellite television menu, then formal grammar instruction will feel like so much child abuse. If it leaves any lasting impression at all, it is more likely to be deleterious than salutary, and stands a good chance of turning him against formal education in general.

While I do not argue with any of Spell Me Jeff's points, as the child of a Reader; as a Reader; as the parent of Readers (albeit, one late-blooming) and as the grandparent of Readers, while I refuse, absolutely, to believe that anyone, at any time of life is lost, lost, lost, my gut says that a 5th grader who has avoided reading anything more sophisticated than text messages and the satellite television menu is already in deep, deep trouble.

And by the way? As a Reader, I found formal grammar instruction to feel like so much child abuse. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it was, which is why my 5th grade teacher doled out diagramming as punishment.

Oh, Ms. Demyanovich, why couldn't you have been on the school board or teaching back when I was a public-school student? You're brilliant!

And having reacted, I'd have redacted, which is what I meant to say.

Am I too sensitive a soul? It just seems such an evil thing to use as a joke.

I, too, liked Ms Demyanovich's paper, (I presume she means Desmond Morris, by the way, not Morris Desmond), but she'll need to search hard to find teaching staff willing to try it.

Many of the LL comments seem to me to reflect a common attitude among linguistics academics: "I've studied many years to achieve my present expertise, and I'm paid a great deal to exercise it; it's therefore much too complicated for the kiddies (or indeed any amateur) to be allowed to play with it - moreover I know some of the things the children are taught are not the complete truth; better to keep them in ignorance than to give them just part of the picture; if they start off being told nouns are thing words and verbs are doing words, how will they ever recover?"

And while you're about it stop introducing children to physics via Newton, or telling English children the Saxons arrived in the 5th century, or whatever it is that advanced mathematicians know is cockeyed about introductory arithmetic. Pshaw, I say. They think too much of themselves.

My educational experience was disgracefully abusive. Nuns ordered you sharply about. There was no sympathy at home. My father reinforced penguinial dictates with a nasty cuff to the shoulder if I complained.
I was embittered by the educational process. If adults were going to teach me something, why not teach me how to throw a baseball with accuracy or hit a curve?
I survived to use penguinial in a sentence, even if I can’t find it in the Third International. Perhaps I wasn’t abused enough.

I can say that as a kid who spent more time reading than speaking, I never felt as if I were learning anything *new* during grammatical instruction. I was merely being given words to describe patterns I recognized, as Spill Me Jeff suggests.

However, I was also one of very few in my Gifted & Talented class who felt that way, and now I am pursuing a career in editing. Take that as you will. (Having parents for whom English was a second language might have had something to do with my fascination, but who knows?)

Picky, I'm right there with you. I see too much evidence of real child abuse at my job, and cannot find humor in applying the term to teaching grammar. We can be sensitive on this subject together. Solidarity, my brother.


True confessions time--I was that straight-A student the popular kids hated (unless they needed help with an assignment). I went to school long enough ago to have learned something about diagramming sentences. But I never really understood how English worked until I studied foreign languages (Latin, French and German, to be precise).

Solidarity, Tim. Thank you.

I learned grammar from repetitious workbooks. That was 60 or so years ago. I liked the workbooks because they made sense and clearly showed what was right and what was wrong. They were almost like math workbooks. The best way to speak grammatically is to have parents who speak grammatically. It's really hard to correct what the ear learned wrong.

I like many ideas in Melissa Demyanovich's paper, and I'd like to see her ideas get a fair trial. But I hope proponents go into any experiment understanding that they will have opened numerous new frontiers of peevery.

(And to indulge in my own peevery, I was sorry to see the paper confused Teddy Roosevelt with FDR in regard to speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Which leads me to think history teachers no doubt have their ideal curriculum lined up to supplement any alterations in reading, linguistic and mathematical instruction.)

Respectfully, blogger Spell Me Jeff (via blogmeister McIntyre), I submit the great Bard of Avon, if he were still with us, might quibble a tad w/ your closing comment, i.e., "Yes, trees dying in the dessert need to walk 500 miles to the nearest river. Sadly, you cannot teach trees that skill." I know this was intended as an instructive metaphor, but bear w/ me.

Quoting from Shakespeare's beloved tragedy, Macbeth: "Macbeth shall never be vanquished until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him."

Messenger to Macbeth: "As I did stand my watch upon the hill/ I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, me thought/ the wood began to move."

Well we all know those advancing Birnam conifers did not really move on their own volition, yet poor old thane, Macbeth, whose mounting paranoia had by that juncture reached a fevered pitch, was quite convinced that the portent of the moving woods had indeed come to pass.

Now , I must concede that those fated trees in the dessert offer a far different scenario.

Speaking of Brit author Desmond Morris (whose first and last name Ms. Demyanovich unwittingly transposed), I still vividly recall the release of his captivating book, "The Naked Ape", and the attendant media buzz its slightly provocative, yet fully-grounded-in-hard-science, content engendered.

I guess if a publisher puts the word "naked" into a book's title, it immediately pricks up one's ears........ among other things. (Oh behave!.) Burrough's "Naked Lunch" comes to mind, as well. Quite the decadent page-turner.

Interestingly, when anthropologist/ behavioralist Morris wasn't writing, or lecturing about us 'naked apes'/ homo sapiens, he pursued the avocation of a painter, very much in the surrealist mode, and was IMHO, quite accomplished in this regard. Hardly a rank amateur. He clearly took his fine art very seriously.(There are a few published books w/ reproductions of Morris' paintings out there.)

Stylistically, his paintings appear to have been highly influenced by early, eminent continental European modern surrealists Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, and Max Ernst. But I digress.

Before I get onto yet another meandering tangent, i will bid your folks adieu.


P.S.: Wonder if any of my fellow bloggers are the least bit excited about golf's current U.S. Open which kicked off today? (I know Prof. McI. is not amused. HA!) It's being played at the venerable, most difficult Congressional course, not too far removed, geographically, from Charm City.

It's a 'Tiger-less' Open this year (he's sidelined w/ a bum left knee), so the title is basically up for grabs. After today's first round the young, precociously accomplished Northern irishman, Rory McIiroy is leading the early pack, by three strokes, whilst sentimental American favorite, Phil Michelson scrambled to a very mediocre three-over par (74), and is already 9 strokes back of the leader. Yet, hope springs eternal.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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