Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal

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A few days ago, out of the 21,595 visitors to LLOG that Google Analytics counted, 88 arrived after asking what part of speech is the, and thereby landing on Arnold Zwicky's post "What part of speech is 'the'?", 3/30/2006. Unfortunately, if they were looking for how to fill-in-the-blank on a homework assignment, they probably went away unsatisfied, because Arnold's excellent post starts by complaining, cogently and at length, that "the school tradition about parts of speech is so desperately impoverished", and closes by noting that

[A] linguist who proposes to introduce, say, the technical term determiner for a class of pre-adjectival modifiers in English that includes the articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, possessives, and more is likely to be seen as UNDERMINING tradition, casting off the sureties of the past in favor of fashionable jargon.

All true — but hard for a student to boil down to a single label. And just as hard for a teacher to use as the foundation for an assignment. This confusion and controversy about what standard grammatical terminology (and methodology) ought to be is one of several reasons that grammatical analysis has all but vanished from the curriculum of American schools.

I feel that it's past time to do something about this. So, as a Christmas present to the English-speaking world, let me propose a simple and practical way to cut through the tangled undergrowth of grammatical tradition and the dense thickets of recent grammatical argumentation. The goal: a standard, canonical grammatical description for English. Yes, really. It's already Out There — all we need to do is to recognize it for what it is.

My proposal is a simple one. The standard grammatical analysis for English should be based closely on the treatment used in the Penn Treebank, which was originally planned in the early 1990s as a consensus among a collection of computational linguists, and then worked out in detail by being applied to several million words of text, and used in the development and testing of many automatic parsers.

Why should we choose this scheme as the standard? Not because its choices are always "correct", but rather because:

In simpler terms: it works, it lasts, and it's already by far the most widely used standard among people concerned with practical grammatical analysis of English (and most other languages).

Once this proposal is accepted, there's plenty of room for discussion. How much grammatical detail should we try to teach, and to whom, and when, and why? Should we teach syntax in dependency form rather than constituent-structure form? How much of predicate-argument structure and other shallow semantics should be included, at what stage? How should a didactic skill-teaching style be balanced against an approach based on exploration and argumentation?

But for people who are serious about re-introducing grammar into the school curriculum, I don't see any better alternatives, or indeed any practical alternatives at all.

 

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89 Comments »

  1. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    Seconded, provided the tags are a bit more descriptive and intuitive, i.e. none of that cryptic JJ and RB nonsense. In fact, the Arabic Treebank does exactly that by using abbreviations like ADJ or NOUN and we (these guys and me) adopted a similar scheme for Maltese.

  2. Jespersen said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    But… but… the Penn Treebank Tagset doesn't distinguish complementizers from prepositions :(

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Supposing that this proposal were magically adopted this instant and English teachers miraculously turned into adepts, would teaching grammar in line with this proposal (and, you know, like assigning actual grades based on student comprehension and accomplishment) be sufficient to produce high school graduates capable of composing a cogent paragraph made up of more or less grammatical sentences?

    That's the test that interests me. If it is capable of that, I wholeheartedly endorse it. If all it does is produce people primed to become linguistics majors but who cannot otherwise write comprehensibly, then it's no better than the non-system currently in place.

    I don't know enough about what you're proposing to guess at the answer to my question, so please don't think I'm skeptical. I'm just asking.

  4. david said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

    After a quick look at some of the links I am bewildered. How about a tutorial or beginners guide for people who studied grammar decades ago? I would start to learn this just to keep up with some of the LL discussions. Also how are grammar school teachers expected to begin to use all this wealth?

  5. Chris Henrich said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    I think that Dick Margulis's post asks too much of Penn Treebank grammar. Good composition is a complex skill, requiring much practice to acquire. The main purpose of grammar, for high school students, is to be able to think about the structure of a sentence, to see what may be wrong with it, and to consider alternative ways of writing it. This kind of work may be done alone, or in discussion with the teacher.
    The grammar that I was taught in high school in the 1950s served these purposes, albeit imperfectly. If the Penn Treebank system would be an improvement, that is a sufficient reason for considering it.

  6. Bill W said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    What about the analytical framework provided by Huddleston and LL's own Pullum in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language? I don't think it's very different from the Penn Treebank, but it's formulated in a way that seems like it would be more accessible to teachers who don't have a background in computational linguistics and to students. The explanations are very lucid, and it's very thorough.

  7. michael farris said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

    I've long said that the English grammar based on the kinds of explanations used in ESL would be a vast improvement over traditional models which are broken and beyond repair.

    It's not perfect, but it's miles ahead of what we have now.

  8. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    Mr. Margulis,

    I'm confused: are you telling us that out there, somewhere, there are legions of high school students (native speakers of English) who produce written texts full of ungrammatical sentences? If so, can you give us a few examples of such sentences?

  9. D.O. said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

    Question. Is this a sort of English grammar that is currently taught at college level (intro linguistics maybe)? You cannot develop reasonable grade school curriculum starting from a manual. It has to begin as simplified and watered down version of what is already taught at higher level.

  10. Lane said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    (Apologies if this turns up twice; I thought I posted it, but I may not have hit "submit".)

    How does this idea get transmitted to the decision-makers that matter? English teachers are mostly English majors. They learn the analysis of literature, and virtually nothing about the analysis of grammar. (If they were educated after 1970 or so, they also learn a lot of theory that has much less to do with the analysis of grammar than what's going on at Computer Science does.)

    Every English graduate should understand the English language, especially given how many will become not only teachers but editors, proofreaders, and other language-types. They all need at least one chunky course in English syntax. But my understanding is that this is optional, and not popular, among English department requirements.

    Doesn't the MLA conference bring together linguists and literature department teachers? Why not present this there? It would need a thoroughgoing demolition of the traditional and broken grammatical categories for starters, and a softly-softly introduction to concepts like "determiner" in the second half.

    I'd love to see something like this happen. But it would take decades to train the old bad habits out of the system…

  11. Marek said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

    I think the big issue is that the traditional approach to grammar teaching fails to recognise *how* the suggestions raised by linguists – describing words with an adequate tag set, using distributional criteria for POS distinctions, separating "grammaticality" from "appropriate style", or even distinguishing grammar from spelling to begin with – are relevant to the purpose of teaching "good writing". Dick Margulis illustrates this side rather well.

    We're teaching children that the natural world is made up of four classical elements, and it kind of gets them to understand why seasons change and how to react when fire breaks out, so why change this?

    Personally, I left high school convinced that all of the "grammar" I had been taught was a completely invented concept, arbitrary labels rather than anything actually real or tangible (my experience wasn't with the English educational system, but close enough). And I know I'm not the only one, this is a common impression students get when parts of speech are explained using vague semantic criteria. "The" can't be described this way at all, so it gets ignored or pigeon-holed as an adjective.

    Linguistically-informed education could fix that – even when the ultimate goal is to teach writing or some prescriptive standards. I know Geoffrey Pullum has produced enough work on this subject, but consider an example: the vilified misspelling "a lot" as "alot". Traditional explanations boil down to saying that "alot" (or any other misspelling, for that matter) is "not a word".

    A much better way to explain spelling of such forms is to involve distributional criteria – e.g. to contrast "a lot" with "a bunch" and "a ton", to ask students if they can think of any other forms (what about multi-word expressions following "a"? do they follow any pattern?), and to watch them giggle as they try and come up with obscenities. But in the end, they'll learn something about both language and the expected spelling. It works.

  12. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    bulbul, I'm confused by your confusion. I just finished grading twenty papers written by undergraduate students of a prestigious university, and the majority were riddled with ungrammatical (or at least grammatically non-standard) sentences.

  13. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    Levantine,

    excellent, may we see some examples?

  14. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    No, because I'm not in the habit of posting examples of my students' work on the internet.

  15. bjza said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    I haven't followed the literature on language education since completing my BA in 04, but at the time the data didn't suggest the major problem concerning grammar programs was sloppy classification or terminology. Rather the major problem was that direct instruction in grammar does not do the main thing parents and school boards want it to do: improve a student's writing ability. Grammar might be its own worthy end for some of us (myself included), but that's not the expectation of parents and the general public.

    (Weaver's 1996 Teaching Grammar in Context is the reference my thesis adviser insisted I read at the time. There are certainly more recent data and teaching philosophies, but I couldn't name them.)

    If writing is indeed the goal, my work with middle school writers in the last year tells me that other than identifying sentences and clauses, these students' needs would be better fulfilled through instruction on homophones, on playing with voice, and on dialect awareness of the kind Walt Wolfram has long endorsed. I don't know that clarifying the fuzzy edges of terminology can help there.

  16. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    Marek,

    I fully agree with your first paragraph. The issue here, however, is how we teach grammar once we separate it from all the other stuff it usually gets lumped with. I quite like the system that was in place when I went to elementary school (1986-1993 Czechoslovakia): we had two classes – one for what I would call today creative writing and one for grammar which covered parts of speech, morphology (orthography included) and even syntax and semantics. Admittedly, the practice left a lot to be desired, but looking at my old textbooks now, I like what I see. Of course, we had at least two central institutions to come up with a way to explain stuff about language while English doesn't, but that's precisely Mark's point: people have already come up with a way to think about the structure of English, so why not use it?

  17. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    Levantine,

    not the whole essay or even a sentence, just a few examples of the ungrammatical structures.

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    I don't think a knowledge of grammar has much to do with the ability to write coherently. That's the province of editors, not writers.

  19. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    Dangling modifiers, comma splices, "it's" for "its", incorrect verb conjugations, and the list goes on. I'm not saying that the errors are egregious, but they are certainly plentiful.

  20. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    Levantine,

    thank you. None of the first three would make a sentence ungrammatical and the fourth is a bit too vague – are we talking number agreement, subjunctive or something else? Like Ralph above you, you might want to reread Marek's comment, especially the first paragraph.

  21. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    bulbul, perhaps you define a grammatical sentence as a comprehensible one, and it is indeed the case that the errors I listed would very rarely affect one's ability to understand the intended meaning. Nevertheless, the fact that your own writing (at least as it appears here) avoids these errors suggests that you yourself subscribe to the idea of a grammatical standard.

  22. tyrone slothrop said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    "A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter."–A Modest Proposal, Johnathan Swift

  23. bulbul said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    Levantine,

    No. Grammaticality is a concept with a clear definition of which one wording could be "conformity to the rules of grammar." Contrary to popular belief, rules of grammar do not necessarily govern ambiguity or avoidance thereof (which is the issue wth dangling modifiers), nor does it cover punctuation like commas (that's what style guides are for) and orthography is likewise outside of its purview. You can write a sentence that is ambiguous and yet perfectly grammatical and there were plenty of grammatical sentences uttered before writing was even invented. Now if I were the one to dispense advice, I would suggest you go, read up on this (the people who post here have written some stuff) and then perhaps have a one more look at those essays. I'm sure your students deserve better.

  24. Marek said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

    @bjza:

    The fact remains that most schools already teach parts of speech as part of their curriculum, and they are doing a sloppy job – I believe Mark's point is that you should use established facts and standards if you need to involve linguistic terminology in the first place. Whether linguistics should be entangled with writing is a different issue, and I agree a lot of it would be irrelevant, but I can't see how spreading antipatterns (e.g. considering determiners adjectives) helps in either case.

    @bulbul & Levantine:

    Teaching good writing and being a prescriptivist are two very different things (unfortunately for the education system, this is very rarely recognised).

    For example, the four errors listed by Levantine fall into completely different categories: nonstandard/colloquial language, punctuation error, spelling mistake wrongly classified as a grammatical one in traditional grammar education, and a genuine syntactic error.

    I think we can agree that none are appropriate in formal writing – but that doesn't mean you should just lump them together as "bad grammar". Obscenities and contractions are not appropriate in formal writing either, and they're pretty fucking grammatical. Appropriate style and grammaticality simply don't overlap, not to mention completely nonlinguistic aspects of good/bad writing, and blurring the distinction does more harm than good. Linguistics is useful because it actually lets you interpret and explain what's going on, even if the ultimate goal is to teach writing in the standard language (the same logic as in the "alot" example in my previous post could be applied to "it's" versus "its").

    Ray Jackendoff wrote a very nice article on this topic:
    http://library.ibp.ac.cn/html/cogsci/tclb-2003-1.pdf

  25. Monoglot said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

    I'm wondering if this grammatical ignorance of the most common word in the English language (along with other English peculiarities like the habitual past) has to do with the formerly total dominance of Latin in education (which lacks these things).

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    @Lane How does this idea get transmitted to the decision-makers that matter?

    And furthermore, how do you get it adopted and taught, at classroom level? Geoff Pullum, I think, has commented on how you can teach modern descriptive linguistics to trainee teachers, but the moment they get into the classroom they start parroting the same prescriptive factoids they in turn were taught as children (a situation that wouldn't be tolerated in other subjects – e.g. if a geography teacher started teaching geography a century out of date).

  27. Rohan F said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

    bulbul:

    One example I see very often in grading papers is incorrect number-agreement with clause heads. I've seen quite a few students write sentences of this form (this is a concocted example for the sake of demonstration):

    The examples of technological transformation considered in Smith and Smith's paper is a useful reminder of these phenomena.

    What I think is happening, from having seen a number of examples of this type, is that they are simply making the verb agree with the surface form of the noun that immediately precedes it, not with the actual head of the noun phrase. The number of people who I've seen do exactly this is large enough that it seems unlikely to just be an isolated phenomenon, and that I suspect it's got something to do with the way that grammar is taught more generally.

  28. Adrian said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    Dick said: "Supposing that this proposal were magically adopted this instant and English teachers miraculously turned into adepts, would teaching grammar in line with this proposal (and, you know, like assigning actual grades based on student comprehension and accomplishment) be sufficient to produce high school graduates capable of composing a cogent paragraph made up of more or less grammatical sentences?"

    Whoa. Knowledge of grammatical terminology is useful when discussing the things we read, but it has rather less application to the act of writing. When I taught composition, the things I remember saying most often were: Answer the question (!), make your writing more interesting – not repetitive or undescriptive – and correct your spelling and punctuation. Of course there were grammatical errors, but 9 times out of 10 they were corrected without resorting to the nomenclature.

    And to add to the similar point already made, many great writers are error-prone, but they have great editors.

  29. Dick Margulis said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    Sorry to have abandoned all of you after posting my question. Today was a holiday, and all.

    Bulbul, after some percentage of matriculating students receive their diplomas, and after some percentage of them go on to get a four-year undergraduate education, and after some percentage of college graduates go on to get further degrees, I find myself trying to make sense of the raw prose they submit to publishers who have already contracted with them for the content. I am one of the editors whose province it is, according to Mr. Hickock, to teach them to write coherently (although I am not paid to teach them anything—I'm paid to try to make their writing coherent, a somewhat different task). And I'm here to tell you that if there are legions of American high school students who /are/ producing grammatical sentences, they must stop doing so once they have that sheepskin. I would settle for sentences with fixable grammatical errors. Instead, what I mostly see (from people with PhD, MD, MBA, and JD degrees, among others) is word salad, random mixtures of content words and functional particles in which the only consistent rule of inference is that if there is a period, then the next non-blank character should be a capital letter. Everything else is up for grabs. Yes, some people write better than that. Some people majored in creative writing at elite universities and have pretty much decoded how language works. But most people trying to publish today do not have a clue what a sentence is. If you think they do because you've read their published works, you can thank an editor for conjuring that illusion. So if teaching kids grammar through the medium of the Penn Tree Bank can help solve that problem, it will be a great start.

  30. phspaelti said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    I am always shocked by Mark's repeated pushing of this hacky system. Of course people who write parsers have their reasons, but trying to use this in any normal classroom would be a dubious achievement. Zwicky's article laments trying to expand beyond four categories, and Mark is suggesting the use of a system with dozens of ad hoc categories intended for literal minded parsing robots.

    To the extent that this system makes distinctions beyond what is done with Huddleston and Pullum, this strikes me as just unnecessary. But I am truly dismayed by the instances where the system does not line up well with that one. RP Particle. Really!!??

    If the computer guys like this system, I say: Let them keep it.

  31. Mark Mandel said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

    The surety of my past is that "the" is an article — specifically, the definite article of English — and "a/an" is the indefinite article. So I was taught in jr. high and high school, in the sixties. When I got into linguistics, it was obvious to me that articles are a subclass of determiners.

    None of which bears on the important issues that most of these comments focus on. But that was my reaction to Arnold's paragraph that Mark L. quoted.

  32. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    bulbul, I graded for content, not for style, so you needn't concern yourself.

    Marek, I appreciate your response and agree with much of what you say. That doesn't change the fact, however, that papers written by well-educated, intelligent students are typically full of errors of one kind or the other, many of them grammatical.

  33. bookmarks for December 23rd, 2013 through December 25th, 2013 | Morgan's Log said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 12:06 am

    […] Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal – Loving the grammarians to death. Kiss kiss. – (grammar linguistics ) […]

  34. Rod Johnson said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    phspaelti: I have a similar reaction (the lumping of prepositions and subordinating conjunctions bugs the hell out of me), but should the fact that Mark refers to this as "a modest proposal" suggest he's not entirely serious?

  35. Douglas Bagnall said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:18 am

    The Penn Treebank makes me cross. Only people in some institutions have access to it, but for them it is so pervasive that it is the only smallish text corpus they ever think of using when they publish a new result. The rest of the world is left out, and have to make do with silly corpora like text8, or hack together something from project Gutenberg that is not directly comparable to anything else. I wish that the researchers in those institutions would see hat they're doing, and that the LDC would free the Treebank.

  36. John Walden said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:36 am

    Rohan F:

    It's called "proximity agreement" amongst other things and seems to be a feature of Australian and New Zealand English.

  37. David Morris said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 6:51 am

    The examples of technological transformation considered in Smith and Smith's paper is a useful reminder of these phenomena.

    I can easily understand this construction happening in spoken English, and even spontaneous written English, but it really shouldn't in prepared/revised written English.

  38. Ken Brown said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 7:47 am

    What Mark Mandel said. At school in England in the 1960s and 70s these words were excluded from the 6 or 7 traditional parts of speech, and called "articles". If I remember correctly we were also told that some pronouns and adjectives such as "these" and "some" could function in similar ways, or their functions overlapped.

    @Dick Margulis and others. I don't think teaching students how to analyse syntax is going to do much to improve their writing skills.To do that you need to teach them how to *write* which is a different thing entirely. And probably best done top-down, not bottom-up. Starting with goals and context and purpose and argument and structure. What is this piece of writing for? Who will read it? Not that I'd know, because I went to an old-fashioned English grammar school, and as far as I remember I got through 14 years of school before university without a single formal lesson on composition. We didn't do that then.

    If you want to improve the quality of their language (not at all the same as composition) then surely the best thing to do is get them into the habit of reading? Studying poetry can't hurt either. You can't become a good writer without reading any more than you can become a good athlete without training and excercise.

    As for grammar, most kids arrive at school already knowing most of the grammar of their first language. If they didn't you couldn't have a convetsation with them. School needs to teach them how to use different registers and styles in different contexts, including written styles. Which is just an extension of the code-switching almost everyone does every day anyway.

  39. Marek said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    I apologise for repeating myself, but – on the subject of the construction mentioned – I thoroughly recommend having a look at Jackendoff's paper I had linked to previously. He used AAVE as an example of how a contrastive, linguistically informed approach could be used in education, but his suggestions are also applicable to the use of proximate agreement in Australian and New Zealand English.

    My modest proposal for teaching this stuff:

    – Identify consistent use of forms undesirable in formal writing, stemming from spoken language or dialectal forms (in this case, proximate agreement).

    – Explain the formal nature of the "error" using a syntactically accurate, but simplified criteria: what other word does the word "is" refer back to? Could you simplify the sentence as "The examples is a useful reminder?" If not, why do you think people utter sentences like the example provided?
    – Explain the importance of the distinction in terms of different registers, along the lines of David Morris' comment, which is more intuitive than appealing to "bad" versus "good" grammar. Students readily understand the concept of stylistic and grammatical variation, e.g. spoken language involves disfluencies and forms like "whatcha", but written language doesn't.

    The second point could even be explained using (partial) dependency graphs or syntactic trees. Why not? It could help visualise the problem – you can erase or cross out the prepositional phrase to demonstrate that sentence structure and meaning stay the same, or try making shorter sentences out of (non)constituents to show that it doesn't work. It's more tangible than involving vague notions of "agreement" and semantic definitions of subjects which wouldn't even work in this case.

    Also, this may be just me, but… doesn't the fact that such forms persist in formal writing of university students indicate the traditional approach to teaching grammar throughout high school is rather inefficient?

  40. Marek said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    Also, there's one more merit to teaching appropriate linguistic terminology: it enables people to talk about language, simple as that. And that they already do (wrong).

    Discussing chemistry without knowing what the periodic table is would be considered laughable – but replace "chemistry" with phonetics, and suddenly you're free to describe "letters" as "guttural", or however else you please. Most self-declared "grammar nazis" on the Internet cannot tell an adjective from a verb, which isn't at all surprising, as Language Log posts indicate the same is true of newspaper editors and columnists. So there's also that.

  41. John Roth said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    First off, exactly what is this proposal? Given all of the topics listed in the penultimate paragraph ("Once this proposal is accepted") I'm kind of at a loss to say what it is other than a specific classification into 36 parts of speech. Much of this is, frankly, redundant. There is, for example, an adjective "JJ", as well as a comparative adjective and superlative adjective. Is it really useful to raise the plain-comparative-superlative distinction to the top level of the taxonomy? It's not like this was lost from the grammar courses I took back in 5th grade, along with diagramming sentences and other bits and pieces.

    Several commenters have mentioned Huddleston and Pullum's CGEL. This is later by over a decade, and the classifications make more sense, frankly. It would not, by itself, be suitable for that first class in English grammar I encountered in a one-room schoolhouse in Michigan, but at least parts of the approach are teachable.

    (Re)introducing a decent grammar component into the standard curriculum is, as far as I'm concerned, a political rather than a technical problem. If you want a concrete suggestion, it's this: emphasize at every level that the grammar being taught is incomplete, and a more comprehensive grammar will be taught later in the curriculum. That would go a long way toward defusing many of the misguided "rules" floating around.

  42. peterv said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    When almost all everyday spoken English is of topic-comment structural form, I don't understand how learning to tag words using a subject-verb-object ontology is going to improve anyone's linguistic expression skills.

  43. Richard Hudson said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    Well said Mark, but the UK is already pursuing a different solution. If it works here, you might like to consider it in the USA. Since the National (i.e. for England – not the whole UK) Curriculum was introduced in 1990, grammar has figured quite prominently through a number of revisions leading up to the present one, which has already been approved and published (http://teach-grammar.com/context#nc). This takes grammar so seriously that it has a special appendix to itself (for the details of what should be taught in primary schools), and a glossary. The appendix and glossary were composed by a group including a couple of linguists (Ron Carter and me), and we were given an almost free hand, so 'determiner' is there. Hooray! But The Boss insisted on an entry on the subjunctive – now seriously emasculated, I'm pleased to report. There's now even a national test at the end of primary where children have to show some (very limited) understanding of grammatical terminology. For complicated reasons, secondary is left in limbo, so a group of linguists based on the Linguistics Association of GB has been working on a more comprehensive version of the primary glossary for the last two years. The current version (minus some major revisions that are in the pipeline) is at http://lagb-education.org/projects#glossary. What I hope is that the LAGB will eventually adopt this glossary as its official one recommended for use in schools (*not* in universities!!). But meanwhile the biggest problem the UK faces is that very few teachers know enough grammar to be stand confidently in front of a class and teach it.

    My reading of history is that the 20th century disaster in grammar education was at least in part due to failures in our universities, which stopped providing any research underpinnings for school grammar about 1900, so school teachers simply regurgitated what they themselves had learned in their school days.

    By the way, one thing that strikes foreigners about the USA is the continuing popularity of sentence diagramming. A few months ago I met a young American who had done a lot of it at school, and it has a major presence on the internet – including even a site where you can generate diagrams by computer. I don't think sentence diagramming exists at all in the UK, though I know it's very popular (and probably well done) in a lot of European countries (e.g. the Czech Republic – see teach-grammar.com/context#cz).

  44. GeorgeW said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    @Marek: You make a good point about enabling people to talk about language. But, most people have no need to discuss language like a linguist. The "Treebank" categories may be much more than the average educated person would need.

  45. chh said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    John Walden, could you link to something that argues that agreeing with the nearest preceding noun is a grammatical feature of any variety of English? I think I see the paper/webpage you're referring to, and it's mostly talking about a different phenomenon and not saying anything about grammaticality of the proximity pattern.

    If people want to see recent research on the thing Rohan F is talking about, they could look for 'agreement attraction' instead. In my experience, too, students are prone to making that error in their writing.

    I also recall students using thesauruses to populate their essays with words they had never heard and making lots of errors not knowing what sort of complement clause or preposition the big word selected for. That's certainly a type of grammatical error, as opposed to a stylistic one. I'm puzzled that anyone would doubt that students make actual grammatical errors in their writing.

  46. bulbul said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    Mr. Margulis,

    word salad, random mixtures of content words and functional particles
    Once again, I find myself stumped. Telling us are you people these mentioned writing their in like this write they? Becase that is the only interpretation of your description I can come up with and I find this to be exceedingly unlikely

  47. bulbul said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    chh,

    your example with unfamiliar words most likely involves collocations and similar phenomena (without specific examples, it's hard to tell, would you care to provide some?) and whether those fall under grammar is up for debate. My point is not that students do not make actual grammatical errors. My point is that those who insist that students make grammatical errors wouldn't know a grammatical error if it ate their breakfast and stole their underwear. This discussion has provided proof enough that I'm right.

  48. bulbul said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    GeorgeW,

    most people have no need to discuss language like a linguist
    True. And most people do not need to discuss chemistry like a chemist or biology like a biologists. And yet, many people do discuss language and its use, more often than they discuss chemistry or biology. I think it is in everybody's interest to make sure that people know what they're talking about and for that, they should probably use the metalanguage used by professionals. Not all of it, mind you, but enough to know a noun from a hold in the ground.

  49. chh said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    Bulbul, I'm not sure how attributing the error to collocations would make it not a grammatical error. It seems uncooperative exclude writing errors that have to do with selectional restrictions, phrase structure, etc. from 'grammar' in this context. I don't know, though, maybe it falls neatly into some other area that teachers are supposed to attend to in their students' writing!

    I couldn't find any examples in five minutes of searching, but for clarity, I was talking about errors of this type:

    "The guard anticipated me from leaving." because 'anticipate' is sometimes given as a near synonym for 'prevent'.

    Here are a few of the bona fide, interesting grammatical errors I did see in those five minutes. These are all from native English speakers. I do wonder whether teaching students any framework for grammatical analysis helps diagnose or avoid grammatical errors in writing, but then again I guess that's not a connection myl was proposing in the post. I've gone totally off topic.

    "Animals are able to communicate but does not imply they know a language."

    "Without a language used to send messages coded in, we might have lost many lives."

    "The language has many different rules to acquire to fully understand."

    "…humans understand one another because those who follow the language are on the same basis of understand of its grammar."

  50. bulbul said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    cch,

    I'm not sure how attributing the error to collocations would make it not a grammatical error.
    That depends to what extent you want to include collocations, valency et al. under the heading of grammar. Some do. Others don't, for various reasons, such as distribution.

    Thank you for the examples. The one with "anticipate" is an obvious case of the writer not knowing how to use the verb (i.e. a valency issue). As for the rest, these are indeed interesting. Where did you get them and, more importantly, would you be able to explain what's wrong with each of them so that their authors would understand the error? That's actually the issue at hand, finding a way to explain language and its structure to people. Good writing, whatever the hell that is, has little to do with it.

  51. Roger Lustig said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    @Bulbul: a great many errors are simply the result of failure to proofread. Like your second example above: "this" or "that" was omitted from between "but" and "does."

    Or, like your own 2nd sentence: you're missing a "to" between "uncooperative" and "exclude."

    Happens to all of us.

    As we drum into students' heads the rules against plagiarism, etc. maybe we should simultaneously encourage them to proofread one another's work. Sort of baby steps toward peer review.

  52. bulbul said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    Roger,

    you are referring to cch's post, but thank you for making the point :)

  53. Dick Margulis said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

    bulbul,

    Re: "Telling us are you people these mentioned writing their in like this write they?"

    Despite what you may think unlikely, I'm confronted with strings of characters not too different from your example almost every day. (The biggest difference, actually, is that you didn't misspell any words, randomly capitalize words, or throw in any miscellaneous punctuation marks to put me off the scent of your meaning.)

    It may be that in your universe most people are more articulate than that, but I assure you that out here in the wilds of commercial publishing, what passes for writing is pretty damn rough.

  54. chh said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    @Roger
    I agree! The point I was pursuing was that when people write, they put out ungrammatical strings of a kind (and probably at a rate) that's not to be expected in speech. I think omission errors like the one I made are indeed a nice example of this. Personally, I'd want to call errors like that one grammatical errors, since they produce an ungrammatical string.

    @bulbul
    Those sentences are from college students in a few classes I graded for. I truncated some of them and changed a non-crucial word or two.

    I think what's interesting about most of those sentences is that their ungrammaticality/marginality is related to some pretty deep issues, like control, passive argument structure, relativization, etc. I wasn't claiming anything about how teachers should correct them though (or that as a non-syntactician I can explain them thoroughly), I was just giving a few examples you asked for of writers producing ungrammatical sentences as opposed to errors of stylistic convention. You seemed to not believe this happens. If you're a teacher, maybe you just have universally exceptional students :)

  55. Adrian said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    Ken: I wonder what response the teacher would accept to the question in the OP? Determiner? Article? Definite article? What about adverb? And does knowing the answer help the child in any way other than that they will be able the answer the question "correctly" in tests?

    Richard: "What I hope is that the LAGB will eventually adopt this glossary as its official one recommended for use in schools. But meanwhile the biggest problem the UK faces is that very few teachers know enough grammar to be stand confidently in front of a class and teach it."

    So why teach it at all? In what way is this "the biggest problem the UK faces?" It is important that children should be able to read and write. It is so much less important that children know how to name the words and structures they use. And the time-wasting is compounded by the fact that it's as often as not a case of the blind leading the blind.

    Re: diagramming etc. I find in general that writing (novels, non-fiction, newspaper articles, etc.) from British writers is better than that from American writers. Perhaps this has something to do with the institutional over-emphasis on process rather than outcome?

  56. Rohan F said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    bulbul:

    My point is that those who insist that students make grammatical errors wouldn't know a grammatical error if it ate their breakfast and stole their underwear.

    Perhaps say "many of those" rather than imply that this is the case in general. Students do make grammatical errors, some of them quite egregious – the thing of "agreement attraction" or "proximity agreement" (thanks to John Walden and chh for the terminology, which I was not aware of) is a perfect example that I've noted quite a lot. Another that I've noticed in the writing of some of my students is a consistent use of plural nouns as the modifier in noun-noun genitive constructions, which is normally ungrammatical (with certain lexicalised exceptions such as "systems theory").

  57. Chris said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 12:47 am

    People say we should "teach" grammar as if they are describing an activity, when in fact they are just describing a desired outcome. Where is the evidence that attempts to make kids learn grammar through compulsory instruction can actually be effective? See Freddie deBoer's post here:

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/09/19/grammar-and-what-cant-be-taught/

    I think it would be wonderful if the average person had a better grasp of grammar, but that doesn't make it a realistic goal. At the very least, advocates of more compulsory grammar instruction should be engaging in some genuine cost/benefit analysis. Piling more requirements on students, and/or diverting resources from other subjects, is not necessarily worth the (arguably pretty speculative) benefit.

  58. K said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 2:26 am

    My point is that those who insist that students make grammatical errors wouldn't know a grammatical error if it ate their breakfast and stole their underwear.

    I think that this is a little uncharitable.

    Students do make grammatical errors in their writing–that is, they write things that they would judge ungrammatical. I'm not referring to violations of "the" written standard here, but genuine mistakes that they don't catch. They're not following the advice to "write like you talk." They're too uncomfortable with writing to do that. In some composition courses, instructors teach students to proofread by reading aloud just to help them catch this sort of error.

    I don't think that better grammatical education would necessarily help this problem. The students already know (subconsciously) how to form the correct sentence without diagramming it.

    I do think that it would help when discussing other kinds of errors, though. It can be difficult to explain a standard usage when a student's metalinguistic understanding is incoherent. For example, the confusion about "passive" writing is terrible. People don't have enough grammatical knowledge to even identify what the passive voice is, and so there is a morass of conflicting, confusing injunctions surrounding verbs like "be" and "have." Trying to follow the advice without understanding it (technically or socially/historically) can legitimately worsen your writing. And I imagine that it's intimidating, too.

  59. Debra Myhill said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 3:48 am

    I have been fascinated by this thread of comment (and thanks to Mark who sent me the link!). Here in England we are in the somewhat strange position of having a new National Curriculum with the most explicit emphasis on grammar in twenty years, but no clear rationale for its presence. It sits uncomfortably between traditional prescriptivism, with a view that knowing the parts of speech will eradicate error, and a descriptive view that more knowledge about grammar will allow more explicit control. What we do know from successive studies is that isolated grammar teaching has little effect on writing; but also, as one of the comments above highlights, grammatically perfect writing (in a prescriptivist sense) is not necessarily 'good' writing.

    We have now conducted several studies (including an RCT) which has looked at the impact of teaching grammar relevant to the demands of the genre being addressed, or relevant to learners' particular writing needs: and the effect has been positive (though teachers' grammar knowledge is a significant mediating aspect). This does challenge the 'grammar is no use in the classroom' rhetoric, but equally it challenges (usually political) views that sim[ply including grammar as mandatory will address perceived writing problems.

  60. John Walden said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 4:19 am

    chh: I must have invented the Australian/NZ bit, though I vaguely remember a discussion on a TEFL board where Aussie teachers found this kind of agreement unremarkable.

    Its relative acceptability is echoed by the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel who say:

    "……agreement by proximity. Certain grammatical constructions provide further complications. Sometimes the noun that is adjacent to the verb can exert more influence than the noun that is the grammatical subject. Selecting a verb in a sentence like A variety of styles has been/have been in vogue for the last year can be tricky. The traditional rules require has been, but the plural sense of the noun phrase presses for have been. While 59 percent of the Usage Panel insists on the singular verb in this sentence, 22 percent actually prefer the plural verb and another 19 percent say that either has or have is acceptable, meaning that 41 percent find the plural verb with a singular grammatical subject to be acceptable."

    But I don't think that it's especially a feature of any particular English, though AmE is generally less keen on things like "The Government are" whereas we Brits are more relaxed. I'd hazard that BritE speakers would be more laid back about this "agreement by attraction" too, but don't ask me for proof!

  61. Levantine said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    John Walden, I would say that in the example you quoted ("A variety of styles has been/have been in vogue for the last year"), what makes either conjugation acceptable is that "variety" can be thought of as a collective noun. I suspect that the plural alternative would be much less likely to pass muster with "a collection of styles".

  62. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 5:29 am

    Thanks to Richard Hudson; that glossary is handy to know about.

  63. Ray Girvan said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 6:51 am

    @John Walden: Selecting a verb in a sentence like 'A variety of styles has been/have been in vogue for the last year' can be tricky.

    This point interested me in the current context, because I was overall impressed with the guidelines Richard Hudson posted about the UK grammar curriculum: http://teach-grammar.com/context#nc. There was a lot of good stuff: recognition of the existence of formal and informal registers, recognition of regional spoken forms, and so on. And yet in the level 6 short answer test was this question …

    Circle the correct word
    Neither of the pupils ( was / were ) paying attention

    … which is hardly clear-cut.

  64. GeorgeW said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    @John Walden: "The government are" is ungrammatical in AmE.

  65. Levantine said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 7:27 am

    To clear up something in my earlier point, I meant that "variety" belongs to that class of collective noun that sometimes (and in BrE frequently) takes a plural noun. "Collection", by contrast, is less likely to behave this way.

  66. Greg Malivuk said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    bulbul: "And yet, many people do discuss language and its use, more often than they discuss chemistry or biology."

    Indeed, likely because nearly everyone is an expert speaker of their own (variety of) language by the time they enter school, even if they never properly learn such academic skills as formal register or comprehensible writing.

    If people had an innate ability to figure out how to usefully mix chemicals together (even before learning the proper terminology or the scientific method), I rather suspect that they'd talk as readily about chemistry as they do language. You'd get all manner of nonsense, like self-styled "chemistry nazis" who ignorantly insist that the only correct way to mix chemicals is the way the Romans did, and older people complaining that kids these days are destroying chemistry and soon everyone will just be throwing unmeasured amounts substances together randomly, and labs whose style guides strictly require chemists always to add the acid before the base even when it is confusing and makes very little sense to do so.

  67. bulbul said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    chh,

    I think what's interesting about most of those sentences is that their ungrammaticality/marginality is related to some pretty deep issues like control, passive argument structure, relativization
    Are they? I don't think so. Let's have a look again:

    "Animals are able to communicate but does not imply they know a language." – Missing subject of "does not imply", most likely a proofreading error.
    "Without a language used to send messages coded in, we might have lost many lives." – Incorrect order of (let's call it) attributive participle and the noun (messages coded) which could be a result of hasty correction or addition.
    "The language has many different rules to acquire to fully understand." – The most likely explanation is that this one is missing an "and" after "acquire" – again, a proofreading error.
    "…humans understand one another because those who follow the language are on the same basis of understand of its grammar." – To make the sentence grammatical, "understand" would have to be turned into a gerund. It still wouldn't make much sense, but that's a different issue.

    or that as a non-syntactician I can explain them thoroughly
    It doesn't take a syntactician to explain this. Also, for a non-syntactician, you do keep throwing a lot of fancy terms around…

  68. bulbul said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    Rohan,

    the thing of "agreement attraction" or "proximity agreement"
    You mean the thing with, don't you? And while some examples of this may be considered a grammatical error, I am not convinced it is an egregious one, certainly nothing to get all worked up about. But again, the issue is whether you would be able to explain it to your students and whether they'd be able to understand it.

  69. Rohan F said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    bulbul:

    You mean the thing with, don't you?

    No, "with" in this context would have more of a sense of "about" or "concerning". In "the thing of agreement attraction", substitute "phenomenon" for "thing" and you'll see what I mean (albeit, I admit, in a lower and less-well-thought-out register).

    And while some examples of this may be considered a grammatical error,

    I wonder how only some examples of a structure could be considered grammatical errors while others would not.

    I am not convinced it is an egregious one, certainly nothing to get all worked up about.

    Bad enough, and bad commonly enough, to be conspicuous, which is the definition of "egregious". I've seen it in the writing of a number of students and it's one of the most common purely grammatical errors I see (along with misuse of "whom").

  70. bulbul said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    Rohan,

    you say "lower and less-well-thought-out register", I say ungrammatical. "Substitute phenomenon for thing", I wonder what chh would say to that.

    I wonder how only some examples of a structure could be considered grammatical errors while others would not.
    Language, you will be surprised to learn, is a complicated phenomenon. Take this example (source because I'm lazy):
    "For those who attended the second day of the annual meeting, there was an early morning panel and afternoon workshops." Some would insist that two phrases connected by 'and' must take plural, so is this grammatical or not?
    Or try this:
    "None of those who came were good enough." Grammatical or not?

    Bad enough, and bad commonly enough, to be conspicuous
    If it were that conspicuous, it wouldn't be that common.

  71. Levantine said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

    bulbul, I understood the last part of "The language has many different rules to acquire to fully understand" as a poorly phrased "in order to be fully understood". In other words, the sentence may not simply be the result of a proofreading error.

  72. bulbul said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    Greg,

    is an expert speaker of their own (variety of) language by the time they enter school
    Indeed. But that only qualifies them to make grammaticality judgments, i.e. to answer yes or no to the question "Is this sentence good ?". The problem is that people make judgments also on why this or that sentence without bothering to learn anything about how language works.
    Perhaps a better metaphor would be the following: I have a heart, you have a heart. That doesn't make either of us a cardiologist.

    formal register or comprehensible writing
    Those could be considered academic skills, yes, but – and that's an important point – they are distinct knowing about the structure of language and how it works.

  73. John Walden said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    Getting back to the original "modest proposal":

    "Once this proposal is accepted, there's plenty of room for discussion. How much grammatical detail should we try to teach, and to whom, and when, and why? Should we teach syntax in dependency form rather than constituent-structure form? How much of predicate-argument structure and other shallow semantics should be included, at what stage? How should a didactic skill-teaching style be balanced against an approach based on exploration and argumentation?"

    One of the "whys" is an assumption that analysis will rub off on the students, making them write and even speak "better" as a result. I don't see that necessarily happening. Analysis also works on non-standard English but it doesn't make it go away:

    So why?

  74. John Roth said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    @John Walden

    Analysis lets you create rules, like "that's an adjective, it can't modify a verb. You need to find a corresponding adverb. Try adding -ly and see if that sounds right."

    You can't do that unless there's some idea of what an adjective, verb and adverb are. As well as some elementary morphology.

  75. John Roth said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    It's interesting to see how this comment thread has morphed into a back-and-forth on relatively low-level details of minor nits while ignoring the really big issue: how would we get decent grammar eduction back into American schools?

    The operative word in the above is "how." While it would be extremely good if the grammar being taught actually makes sense and is connected to the task of writing something that someone can actually read, it's not central. What is central is having something that a school board can actually decide ought to go into their school's curriculum. That is, an artifact.

    For various philosophical, pragmatic, ideological and so forth reasons, I don't want to get entangled with a textbook company. AFAICT, that's a sure prescription for turning out a piece of expensive junk. That leaves having a free textbook published under some form of open source license. This has, of course, one very powerful selling point: free.

    The project result will be a "textbook." I put this in quotes because I see three levels. At the first level, there are three or possibly four graded texts, targeted at elementary school (grades 4 and 5), middle school (grades 6-8) and high school (grades 9-12). There may be an AP English version as well. Each of these emphasizes that later courses will develop the subject in more detail.

    Drilling down, each of the levels has a classroom student, classroom teacher and parent's guide text, as well as a self-study/home-school student text and home-school parent's guide.

    Drilling further down, each of these is in dead tree format, browser (html, css, etc.) format, e-book format and various app formats.

    The way I see it, this is going to take a project team of several dozen people each of whom have several hundred hours to contribute over the course of a year or two. It may take a formal foundation as the legal structure, as well as a significant donation of equipment. The project team needs to have a variety of talents.

    Well, that's my expansion of Mark's "modest proposal."

  76. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    Not to get stuck with the etymological fallacy, but way way way back when, the function of a "grammar school" was indeed to teach grammar. More specifically, to teach Latin grammar to (a small percentage of) Anglophone children. In those days it was (perhaps quite sensibly) felt that it was unnecessary to provide formal instruction in the grammar of the students' L1. I believe the oft-complained-about tendency of old-fashioned English grammatical analysis to be squeezed into an inappropriately Latinate conceptual schema is best accounted for by it being more or less a semi-accidental side effect of the teaching of Latin. I do think (and this is on my mind because my firstborn child, now in 7th grade, has started learning Latin this year) that formal L2 instruction typically involves (and perhaps usefully so) a level of conscious attention to grammar that is no longer commonly taught for the L1 and requires the Latin learner (and probably the same for the learner of other L2's in a typical school setting) to be consciously mindful of structural issues and analyses that one can be a fluent L1 speaker w/o having to be self-reflective about.

    So I'm wondering if that creates a window of opportunity, where after middle or high school students have taken two or three years of a given foreign language you could then teach them or re-teach them English grammar in a reasonably sophisticated way, pointing out both the parallels and the differences between English and whichever L2 they have been mastering the grammar of at a more self-conscious level.

  77. JBL said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

    J. W. Brewer, that is a very nice suggestion. At my middle school, we did something similar — I believe that for a number of years we had separate "English" (literature and creative writing) and "language arts" (I am not sure if this is the right name; grammar) classes, and then around 6th grade the grammar class was half devoted to Latin and half devoted to English. (But this was a long time ago, so I may misremember details.)

  78. Rod Johnson said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 10:46 pm

    While it would be extremely good if the grammar being taught actually makes sense and is connected to the task of writing something that someone can actually read, it's not central.

    I feel like we're quickly getting to the "beyond a joke" phase of this discussion.

  79. Rohan F said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    bulbul:

    you say "lower and less-well-thought-out register", I say ungrammatical. "Substitute phenomenon for thing", I wonder what chh would say to that.

    If you can argue for why it is ungrammatical, I'm happy to be swayed, but appositive "X of Y" (or appositive genitive or appositive oblique) is a grammatical construction in English: the month of December, the sin of pride, the city of New York, the phenomenon of attractive agreement. Several clearly appositive examples of "the thing of X" appear in COCA. Here are a few, one from speech, two from written text:

    "[T]he thing of going into a jail doesn't – I mean I'm not so afraid of that." (Martha Stewart, Encore Presentation: Interview With Martha Stewart, The Larry King Show 2004)

    "…and also maybe there was just the thing of wanting to spread out, establish your territory." (Stephen Schwartz, "Skeleton", Ploughshares 22:4, p.184)

    "The varieties, all of them changeable, of being unloved, and of the thing of being Jewish and of the thing of having money, and of being American, and then the thing of the politics of listening…" (Harold Brodkey, The Runaway Soul, p.23)

    Language, you will be surprised to learn, is a complicated phenomenon.

    There's no need to be snide.

    "For those who attended the second day of the annual meeting, there was an early morning panel and afternoon workshops." Some would insist that two phrases connected by 'and' must take plural, so is this grammatical or not?

    The structure of "there is" and its inflected forms is syntactically complicated for other reasons – largely the fact that the notional subject appears after the verb, not normally possible in English – so I don't think it's appropriate to use it without remark to exemplify the same phenomenon.

    Or try this: "None of those who came were good enough." Grammatical or not?

    Of course. None even on its own can take either singular or plural agreement, so it's also not an appropriate example of agreement attraction.

    If it were that conspicuous, it wouldn't be that common.

    I'm saying only that in my experience it is common compared to other grammatical errors in writing, and as a grammatical error it is conspicuous to me in large part because of its frequency. To me it is egregious. I can say no more than that.

  80. the other Mark P said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 3:59 am

    The number of people who I've seen do exactly this is large enough that it seems unlikely to just be an isolated phenomenon, and that I suspect it's got something to do with the way that grammar is taught more generally.

    More likely that it's just an easy error to make.

    Maths teachers universally teach kids to square the radius and multiply by pi to get the area of a circle. That kids continue to use the diameter rather than radius is because people make mistakes, not because they are taught wrongly.

    I want some actual evidence that it is teaching that is the problem. It would be idiotic to institute a revision of grammar teaching, only to find that it doesn't actually cure the problem at all.

    In the scheme of things, I have to say that grammar teaching is way down the list of what should be taught at school. It's not fun, and for the vast bulk of students it won't even improve their writing. It'd be lovely if we could teach everything, but we can't.

    (It's a feature of modern peeving that people suggest that schools can just add another thing to their curriculum. It should be obligatory when they do it that they state explicitly what will be removed to fit it in.)

  81. Dick Margulis said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 5:14 am

    "(It's a feature of modern peeving that people suggest that schools can just add another thing to their curriculum. It should be obligatory when they do it that they state explicitly what will be removed to fit it in.)"

    Yes, there is a degree to which I'm arguing, "Why can't they be like we were? / What's wrong with Sammy Kaye? / What's the matter with kids today?" There was time to teach quite a bit of grammar (erroneously in the view of linguists, obviously) and to diagram a lot of sentences when I was in school, and I think we were better off for it. But that may be an illusion on my part. Perhaps my age cohort did not write better than my kids' age cohorts write, and my peeving about the way they write is just another example of a recency illusion.

    It is also quite possible that schooling is not the same as education and that there are more effective ways to train people to think critically and logically and express their thinking in prose that is clear and logical.

    However, if my observation that dropping bad grammar teaching from the curriculum in favor of no grammar teaching (to be replaced by whatever has replaced it) has generally led to poorer written communication turns out, on examination, to be correct, and if we are not yet ready to abandon classrooms as good places to teach useful things to young people, then I'm in favor of doing /something/ about reintroducing grammar to the curriculum, even if it means dropping robotics shop or football.

  82. Ken Brown said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 6:44 am

    Dick Margulis, I doubt if anyone contributing to this thread denies that students – and others – make lots of grammatical (and other) mistakes in writing. And I think nearly all of us would like to see some teaching about grammar at school.

    But I think that many of us do not think that an emphasis on drilling students in parsing or diagramming sentences is likely to improve the prose writing skills of normally competent first language speakers.

  83. John Roth said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    The number of people who I've seen do exactly this is large enough that it seems unlikely to just be an isolated phenomenon, and that I suspect it's got something to do with the way that grammar is taught more generally.

    More likely that it's just an easy error to make.

    Maths teachers universally teach kids to square the radius and multiply by pi to get the area of a circle. That kids continue to use the diameter rather than radius is because people make mistakes, not because they are taught wrongly.

    Two points. First, the math error you mention happens because they're introduced to the diameter first. If the kids were introduced to the radius first, it wouldn't occur to most of them to use the diameter for that calculation. Why are they introduced to the diameter first? That's a pedagogical tradition that goes way back, probably all the way to the Classical Greeks, and has to do with the decision that pi is the fundamental circle constant, rather than 2*pi (tau), which is used much more. Lots of luck getting that changed. (This is, by the way, not a joke. Look up the discussion on that point sometime. The key search term is Tau Manifesto.)

    Do I catch a whiff of an analogy with the griping that grammar is taught all wrong?

    The second point is from manufacturing: if you want to reduce errors to insignificance, you make it impossible for the people doing the work to make errors. There's a Japanese term for this that's used in Lean Manufacturing which translates to "mistake proofing." Taking this as a guideline, maybe the dismal results in teaching kids to write comprehensibly are a signal that we're doing it wrong? That, by the way, doesn't mean I know how to do it right.

  84. Mar Rojo said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    What phspaelti said is enough for me. Students, stick with Huddleston and Pullum and you won't go far wrong.

  85. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    For the last 25 years, I've taught writing in an engineering college (part of a large US state university), and (*fanfare*) I hereby declare that I don't see a lot of grammar errors (in native English speakers, at least). Most of the errors I do see come from students trying to write in a more formal register than they're used to, and bungling fairly complex constructions. But they're fairly competent at what I would call basic written English, and fully aware of the difference between spontaneous informal speech and the demands of professional or academic communication. By the time they're seniors they've mostly more or less mastered a professional voice, though they may not write in an especially elegant or literary way.

    So I would dispute any claim that college students in general have a problem with writing that is necessarily grammar-derived (maybe younger ones do, I don't know, but my students are the product of the US school system for the most part). That's not to say that they don't have problems, however. Besides the register issue, there are two major ones that I grapple with:

    * Students tend to write prose with no clear argument or sense of the relative importance of the claims they make, or the global structure of their arguments. I would argue this is because most of what they're been asked to write in school is pointless bullshit. For most of them, the compositional pinnacle has been "term papers," which have no real reason for being; they're essentially just rehashes of poorly contextualized facts students have somehow encountered, packaged in some kind of simulacrum of an argument to parade in front of someone who knows the field much more completely and deeply than they ever will. They rarely have a chance to affect scholarship or the world. They're essentially a performance of aspired-to academic competency, and it's not clear to the students what distinguishes a good one from a bad one; as such, they don't give the students much of a basis for strategic decisions about what to leave out or what to emphasize in the text, so students don't leave anything, out in the hope that *something* will impress the instructor as worthy. They're just a hoop to be jumped through, packed with as much evidence of their effort as possible. This is not conducive to "good writing," and it's often reflected in muddled writing at the sentence level. But that's not really the students' fault. It's my intuition (though I don't have research to back this up) that many of these problems go away in more realistic, situated writing tasks.

    * Students have a poor sense of the information flow of local segments of text—the gradual staging of new information in a text, orderly progression from topic to topic, explicit expression of semantic transitions between ideas and subordinating some to others (what are the nuances of but vs. however vs. though, etc.), how to discern and highlight the main agent or action or predication in a sentence, and a dozen other things. It's a not-very-well defined group of "discourse-level" things, and most students have been exposed to nothing more sophisticated than "every paragraph must have a topic sentence." This is one area where some knowledge of "grammar" would be very useful to me as a teacher—if students have some primitive notions of grammatical relations, constituency, anaphora, predication, subordination, stuff like that, it's much easier to explore issues like active vs. passive, definiteness, ambiguous pronoun references, and so on. But students typically don't have those tools, and instead spend all their time worrying about Strunknwhitean issues, like whether it's OK to use passives or first-person pronouns, because that's what passed for "grammar" instruction in high school (and, alas, that's all that many of their college instructors take to be "good writing").

    Like most of us here, I only have my intuitions to back me up here, but claims like "the dismal results in teaching kids to write comprehensibly" seem to me to be overbroad and poorly supported. I would like to see, as Mark P suggests, some empirical characterization of the problems students actually have (besides vague claims that they "don't write well") and some analysis of what their (and our) target should be before we start talking about textbooks and curriculum. I know that Mark Brenchley, if he's still here, has done some work on this, and a year or two ago there was some talk here about starting a research effort on corpus-based writing and reading research (which I've lost track of—still going?).

  86. John Roth said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    I'm not sure how to take your comment about 'getting to the "beyond a joke" part of the discussion,' especially since you didn't include the very next sentence, which explained what I thought was central.

    I was not joking. If you're going to have any effect other than griping on blogs, you have to have an actual product that a school board or curriculum committee can evaluate. As a retired software developer, I can say that having a product focuses the mind wonderfully.

    Granted, there's a lot of work that has to be done to make sure the product actually does what it's supposed to: help teach students how to write something that people will willingly read and which makes sense. However, without a product in mind, the discussion is going to wander.

  87. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    John, the idea that having a product that makes sense and is connected to the task is "secondary" to simply having a product strikes me as completely wrongheaded, and ultimately detrimental to the credibility of the project. Worse is better might apply to a software project, but as an educator who encounters poorly conceived textbooks more often than I would like, I have to tell you, it's a poor way to build a curriculum.

    Curricular change (at least in the US) doesn't start with textbooks anyway, regardless of what publishers wish was true. Nowadays it starts with standards, for better or worse. No school board is going to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a textbook without a clear upside, and that won't come without a lot of research and clear arguments for the validity of the approach, no doubt in the face of a lot of entrenched opposition from people who think their traditional approach is sacred (be it Strunk and White, the Bible, or whatever the current curriculum happens to be). I'm amazed that the approach Dick Hudson and Debra Myhill mention in the UK has gotten such a strong foothold.

  88. the other Mark P said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

    Two points. First, the math error you mention happens because they're introduced to the diameter first. If the kids were introduced to the radius first, it wouldn't occur to most of them to use the diameter for that calculation. Why are they introduced to the diameter first?

    They are introduced to the diameter first, because when you measure the width of a circle or cylinder, with a ruler or micrometer, you measure the diameter. Then you halve that to get radius. So in the real world you go from diameter to radius before you find area. Your lovely scheme yields people who can pass maths tests more often, but fail more often when in the real world. I fail to see that as an advantage.

    I could bring up hundreds of similar errors (I'm a Maths teacher). Yes, good teaching reduces those errors, but kids still make them. They consistently forget to halve the area of a triangle when it is embedded in a complex calculation, for example. A mistake they don't make when it is a triangle by itself. That's because people make mistakes when trying to do several things at once — like think of ideas, compose, spell and get good grammar simultaneously.

    I doubt strongly that teaching grammar as a subject will improve composition much at all, because the errors arise from the multi-tasking issues, not the lack of ability to compose a sentence.

    (I know Tau, but it has as many issues as it solves. We lose the beauty of e^(i*pi) +1 = 0, which is perhaps the most gorgeous formula in all maths, for example.)

  89. Lugubert said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    In the fifties, I was introduced to formal Swedish grammar at the age of ca. 9. Grammar was marketed as a tool to explain what was wrong when you made an error, not as a thing to cram in its own right.This training proved to be invaluable when I encountered English (age 11) and German (13).

    Probably part me, part teachers, but I went on also regarding maths, chemistry and physics as tools to understand the world around me.

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