Information Sheet # 117

October 28, 1998

GRAMMAR, USAGE, STYLE

[In 1984 Bedford Books, a subdivision of St. Martin’s Press, began publishing The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing.  Now in its fourth edition, this annotated bibliography--edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg--is the most authoritative one-volume source for introducing faculty to current theory and practices in teaching composition.  Printed below are excerpts from the section of the bibliography on “Style, Grammar, and Usage,” a topic of interest to any faculty faced with the depressing number of mechanical and stylistic “errors” that permeate so many student manuscripts.  Perhaps the bibliography’s annotations suggest some useful perspectives for how we can rethink our perceptions of errors--and develop better strategies for dealing with these problems so resistant to correction.  I have copies of all the articles and books listed in the bibliography and would be glad to loan one or more items to any faculty interested in reading the full text.  The complete bibliography is available at the Bedford Books web site: http://www.bedfordbooks.com/bb/index.html.  --Bob Marrs]

Baron, Dennis E. Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language.  New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982.

After the Revolution, English supplanted Latin and Greek as the dominant language of instruction in American schools.  Patriots sought to differentiate American from British English by establishing native standards of spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. Some advocated the formation of an American Academy, like the French Academy, to set these standards. The authors of popular grammar textbooks also attempted to set standards. Although no uniform “Federal grammar” emerged, the link between correct grammar and patriotism led to the association of correctness with good morals in general, and hence with social prestige. The link between grammar and morality also fostered intense anxiety about correctness that continues to this day.

Crew, Louie. “Rhetorical Beginnings: Professional and Amateur.” College Composition & Communication (October 1987), 346-0.

Most amateurs begin an essay by stating their purpose, giving background, or telling results. Professionals hold those moves in reserve. Sixty percent of professionals, compared with 10 percent of student amateurs (in the given sample), begin with narratives. Such openings dramatize the subject and are brief.  Professionals use indirection, drop hints or cite experts in order to contradict them, and use oblique quotations, whereas amateurs attempt to be direct.  Amateurs use rhetorical questions and truisms, while professionals rarely do. But when these professional strategies are pointed out, student amateurs learn them quickly.

D'Eloia, Sarah. “The Uses--and Limits--of Grammar.” Journal of Basic Writing (Spring-Summer 1977), 1-20.  

Students should learn grammar as part of the writing process. Mina Shaughnessy's work [Errors and Expectations] helps us distinguish between true grammar errors and merely accidental errors in student writing. Teachers can address the grammar-based errors through such techniques as dictation, narrowly focused editing, paraphrasing, and imitation.

Faigley, Lester. “Names in Search of a Concept: Maturity, Fluency, Complexity, and Growth in Written Syntax.” College Composition & Communication (October 1980), 291-300.

Recent research on syntactic maturity in student writing has relied too uncritically on the measures of complexity devised by Kellogg Hunt. Such research, aimed at testing the efficacy of sentence combining, finds increased T-unit [main clause and attached subordinate clauses] and clause lengths in student writing, but no connection has been established between such complexity and the overall quality of the writing. Moreover, designating writing as more or less mature on the basis of such measures is problematic because T-unit and clause length in adult writing vary with discourse aims. Similarly, fluency depends on intersentence, not intrasentence, relations. We have no adequate description of syntactic complexity because we have no reliable generative grammar. Nonetheless, writing pedagogy emphasizes syntax to the detriment of coherence in the essay as a whole.

Finegan, Edward. Attitudes toward English Usage. New York: Teachers College Press, 1980.

The war between prescriptive grammar and descriptive linguistics has a long history--from Swift and Johnson to the battle of Webster's Third.  In the attempt to halt the “degradation” of English, prescriptivists developed the doctrine of correctness, the idea that there are right and wrong grammatical forms. This doctrine dominated language study through the 1800s and continues to dominate teaching and public attitudes toward language. Descriptive linguistics holds that usage determines the language, that different forms have different functions, that spoken language is the language, and that change is inevitable. Although this position has led to modern forms of linguistics, it has not, apparently, changed the general attitude that links “correct” grammar to propriety and even morality.

Flannery, Kathryn T. The Emperor's New Clothes: Literature, Literacy, and the Ideology of Style. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

There is no inherently good style. Rather, the style preferred by socially powerful groups becomes established as good. This style is part of the group's cultural capital, helping them maintain their power. Since the late Renaissance, the clear, simple, objective style praised by the Royal Society has been promoted by Western educational institutions. Behind “style talk” that treats style as politically neutral is a conservative agenda of maintaining the cultural status quo, as can be seen in T.S. Eliot's elevation of Francis Bacon's work as model prose. E.D. Hirsch follows the same agenda with his doctrine of “communicative efficiency” in The Philosophy of Composition.  Literacy education has the institutional role of teaching the plain style to the masses, while literature, with its premium on artifice, remains privileged discourse.  Resisting this agenda requires a rhetorical conception of style that valorizes artifice and a range of styles for everyone.

Harris, Muriel, and Katherine E. Rowan. “Explaining Grammatical Concepts.” Journal of Basic Writing (Fall 1989), 21-41.

Editing is a process of detection, diagnosis, and rewriting, not a single final step in the composing process. But prescriptive grammar often does not help unpracticed writers. . . .  most grammar rules are COIK-clear only if known. Learning grammatical terminology, however, is not the same as learning the grammatical concepts necessary for editing. To help students learn the concepts, four techniques are useful:  provide background information (i.e., prerequisite concepts) when needed; define critical attributes of the concept; use a variety of examples; and in practice sessions, lead students to formulate questions they can ask themselves.

Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English (February 1985), 105-27.

The debate about whether grammar instruction improves writing will not be resolved by empirical studies. These studies suggest that grammar instruction has no effect on writing, and they have been attacked by proponents of such instruction. Grammar may be defined in five ways: (1) The internalized rules shared by speakers of a language. These rules are difficult to articulate and are learned by exposure to the language. (2) The scientific study of the internalized rules. Different theories of language generate different systems of rules. These rules do not dictate the actual use of grammar in the first sense. Researchers find no correlation between learning rules and using them, or between using rules and articulating them. (3) The rules promulgated in schools. These are simplifications of scientific grammars and are therefore even farther from grammar as used by speakers of the language. They reflect the questionable belief that poor grammar is a cognitive deficiency. Metalinguistic awareness, including some knowledge of grammar, seems to be central to print literacy, but the awareness appears to follow, not generate, print literacy.  (4) Grammar as usage: a set of exceptions to grammar rules.  (5) Grammar as style: the use of grammatical terms in manipulating style. Much research suggests that active use of language improves writing more than instruction in any grammar.

Haussamen, Brock. Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern Linguistics. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 1993.

The prescriptive rules of grammar were divorced from descriptive linguistics in the nineteenth century and trying to remarry them is difficult. The tradition of grammar handbooks is long and deeply ingrained, while linguistics has focused on oral language and theory. Descriptive grammar does, however, have much to offer about grammar conventions that can enliven and improve the grammar we teach to students. Haussamen, a community college teacher, offers new descriptions of old conventions including verb tense, agreement, passive voice, pronoun agreement, and punctuation, all in aid of a more rhetorical approach to grammar.

Kline, Charles, R., Jr., and W. Dean Memering.  “Formal Fragments: The English Minor Sentence.”  Research in the Teaching of English (Fall 1977), 97-110.

Grammar handbooks, if they do not simply forbid using sentence fragments, give few guidelines for using them effectively. A survey of samples of formal prose shows that accomplished writers use fragments often and in predictable ways. Kline and Memering list and explain the conditions in which fragments are effectively used and argue that such effective fragments should be called  “minor sentences” (following Richard Weaver's suggestion) and taught as a stylistic option. 

Lanham, Richard A. Analyzing Prose. New York: Scribner's, 1983.

The dominant theory of prose style prizes clarity, brevity, and sincerity. This theory tries to make prose transparent; it reduces rhetoric to mere ornament; it runs counter to common sense, to what we value in literature, and to the fact that context defines its three main terms. Classical rhetorical terms provide an alternative way to describe prose style. Noun style relies on “be” verbs, prepositional phrases, and nominalized verbs. Verb style uses active verbs. Parataxis is the absence of connecting words between phrases and clauses, and paratactic style uses simple sentences and prepositional phrase strings.  Hypotaxis is the use of connecting words, hence a highly subordinated style. Either style may use asyndeton (few connectors) or polysyndeton  (many connectors). The “running” style uses parataxis:  it is characterized by a serial record of ideas with many parenthetical additions.  “Periodic” style is hypotactic: highly organized, reasoned, and ranked. . . . Descriptive analysis should also account for visual and vocal form, the use of several common and effective tropes and schemes, and high and low diction. The reader's self-consciousness about style tends to direct judgments of style as clear or opaque, but determining the appropriateness of style to a range of purposes through descriptive analysis is a better way to judge prose.

Ohmann, Richard. “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language.” College English (December 1979), 390-97. 

One of the most common revision maxims given in rhetoric textbooks is to substitute concrete for abstract language. This advice springs from an ideology that values ahistoricism (focus on the present moment), empiricism (focus on sensory data), fragmentation (objects seen outside the context of social relations), solipsism (focus on individual's perceptions), and denial of conflict (reported facts have the same meaning for everyone). Following this advice may trap students in personal experience and inhibit their ability to think critically about the world. Students need to practice the relational thinking made possible by abstractions and generalizations.


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