Information Sheet #138 

October 23, 2002


At a recent faculty luncheon, I was asked to say a few words about the WAC program.  As often occurs in these situations, I heard myself saying that instruction in English grammar does not help students become better writers–and empirical research reveals that correcting grammatical errors in student papers has no demonstrable benefits.  Although I’m never quite sure how faculty hear such admonitions, I suspect no one believes what I’m saying.  Most people assume they learned a lot about how to write from the grammar instruction in school--and the same should be true for college students.  If young people don’t know their grammar, there is little hope for any notable improvement until the “rules” of the language are mastered.

While thinking about my luncheon experience, I decided to reread “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” an article that I first read shortly before becoming Coordinator of Coe’s WAC Program.  The essay, which first appeared in College English in 1985, was written by the late Patrick Hartwell, a Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  The remainder of this information sheet summarizes Hartwell’s analysis, an argument only strengthened further by research in the last 15 years.

Hartwell notes that the word “grammar” causes many problems when discussing English composition issues because we use this word to define five different grammars, which he numbers Grammars 1-5 (elaborating on a 1950s article by W. Nelson Francis on “The Three Meanings of Grammar”):

•Grammar 1, Grammar in our Heads: The system of internalized rules shared by speakers of a language.  This grammar, impossible to articulate, is acquired by individuals using the language.

•Grammar 2, Scientific Grammar: the academic study of the internalized rules.   Of course, different theories of language generate different systems of rules (e.g., structuralist, generative-transformational, and tagmemic models).  These rules do not prescribe how the grammar is actually used or internalized, and researchers have found no correlation between articulating the rules and using them.

      •Grammar 3, Grammar as Usage: grammar as “linguistic etiquette”--to distinguish between socially accepted grammatical constructions and “bad grammar” (e.g., “he ain’t here”).

      •Grammar 4, School Grammar: the rules promoted in schools. These simplified versions of scientific grammar have minimal value for speakers of the language. Metalinguistic awareness, which may include some knowledge of grammar, is probably fundamental to print literacy, but the awareness appears to follow, not generate, the development of an individual’s print literacy.

      •Grammar 5: Grammar as Style: the use of grammatical terms to teach prose style (Strunk &         White’s Elements of Style is the classic example a Grammar 5 text).

The vigorous disagreements over grammar instruction reflect deep-seated divisions about the suitable models for teaching people how to write.  The defenders of grammar instruction tend to believe that composition instruction should be following a sequential, skills-centered curriculum–and the teaching of grammar would be the first step, the cornerstone, in this sequence.  According to this model [manifested in hundreds of freshman composition programs], students must first learn grammar and usage, studying specific models of organization controlled by a teacher at the center of the learning process. The opponents to such a sequential model view literacy as a “rich and complex interaction of learning and environment. . . an interaction that has little to do with sequences of skills instruction.” 

In discussing Grammar 1, Hartwell notes several fundamental characteristics of these internalized rules:

      • Our knowledge of this grammar is tacit and unconscious.  To demonstrate this quality, conduct a simple experiment.  Ask people to state the rule in English for ordering adjectives of nationality, age, and number.  The typical response is: “We don’t know the rule.”  Then ask them to arrange these words in a natural order:

       French     the     young     girls     four

Native speakers will invariably say “the four young French girls.”  And thus they can use a rule in English (the order of adjectives is number before age before nationality) without knowing the rule.  According to the neurolinguist Z. N. Pylyshyn (Psychobiology of Language, 1983), Grammar I knowledge is autonomous, unknowable by common-sense reasoning, “cognitively impenetrable,” and ultimately unavailable by any means of direct examination.

      • Grammar 1 rules are abstract, counterintuitive, and poorly defined by Grammar 2 statements. Hartwell notes, for example, the bewildering complexity of rules in Grammar 2 for trying to explain how we make plurals.  Hartwell describes a study where native speakers of English were asked to form a plural for the last name of J.S. Bach.  According to most linguists’ rules, the plural would be pronounced /baxz/ with a final z sound.  Common school grammar guides would lead users to produce a written plural with a final s sound, an analogy with churches.  The researchers discovered that native speakers of American English consistently chose /baxs/, relying on a common knowledge “unlearned and untaught.”

      • The form of a person’s Grammar 1 is affected by the acquisition of literacy.  A number of researchers have concluded that the “level of education, and presumably level of literacy, influence[s] judgments of grammaticality, concluding the literacy changes the deep structure of one’s internal grammar.”  There is no research evidence, however, to suggest these developmental sequences can be isolated or taught as discrete skills.  An internal grammar can not be characterized as a set of isolated rules but rather as “developing schemata, broad strategies for approaching written language.”

Turning to Grammar 2, Hartwell notes that the science of linguistics only offers models of Grammar 1 and has little practical use in the classroom for composition instructors.  To quote Mark Lester, there “appears to be no correlation between a writer’s study of language and his ability to write.”  Francis Christensen, in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, describes formal grammar study as inviting “a centipede to attend to the sequence of his legs in motion.”  And James Britton [a scholar who has had a profound influence on the Coe Writing Center’s practices] once suggested that “grammar study would be like forcing starving people to master the use of a knife and fork before allowing them to eat.”  If Grammar 2 knowledge did affect Grammar 1 performance, we could expect professional linguists to be our best writers–a proposition patently untrue. 

The strongest evidence supporting Hartwell’s analysis comes not from analogies and witticisms but from studies of people learning new languages.  For example, Arthur S. Reber’s research into artificial languages “demonstrated that mere exposure to grammatical sentences produced tacit learning: subjects who copied several grammatical sentences performed far above chance in judging the grammaticality of other letter strings.  Further experiments have shown that providing subjects with formal rules . . . remarkably degrades performance: subjects given the ‘rules of the language’ do much less well in acquiring the rules than do subjects not given the rules.”

As for second language acquisition, Hartwell notes Stephen D. Krashen’s distinction between learning the grammar of a second language–which enables users to “monitor” output--and the tacit mastery of the language.  Krashen suggests that we view the “rules” of English as a series of concentric circles.  The outermost circle includes all the rules of English (Grammar 1).  A much smaller second circle is the rules proposed by formal linguists (Grammar 2).  The next smaller circle is the rules known to applied linguists (Grammars 3-5).  Next comes a much smaller circle: the rules known to the best teachers.  And finally, in the smallest circle, are the rules actually taught.  Of course, not all these rules will be learned, and those that are learned may not be applied appropriately.

Other studies suggest that language users rely on intuitive insights, not the application of grammar rules, for judging grammaticality.  In a study of English speakers learning French, participants consistently made language choices based on their intuitive understanding of Grammar 1--and then they sought explicit grammar rules to validate their choices.  In another study, students were asked to state the rule for choosing between the articles a and an.  The study “found no correlation between the ability to state the rule and the ability to apply it correctly, either with native or non-native speakers.” 

Given the overwhelming research evidence, it’s a curious paradox to explain teachers’ fascination with the “rules of grammar” of the Grammar 4 variety, what Suzette Haden Elgin in Never Mind the Trees calls “incantations.”  Hartwell suggests that “as hyperliterate adults we are conscious of ‘using rules’ when we are in fact doing something else, something far more complex, accessing tacit heuristics honed by print literacy itself. . . . the incantations of Grammar 4 are COIK [“clear only if known”].  If you know how to signal possession in the code of print, then the advice to add  -‘s to nouns makes perfect sense. . . . But if you have not grasped, tacitly, the abstract representation of possession in print, such incantations can only be opaque.”  

The uselessness of Grammar 4 guidance is evident in any English handbook. Consider this advice from the 9th edition of the Harbrace College Handbook: “Before handing in a composition . . . proofread each word group written as a sentence.  Test each one for completeness.  First, be sure that it has at least one subject and one predicate.  Next, be sure that the word group is not a dependent clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction or a relative clause.”  Such an approach asks students to behave in ways that mature writers never would adopt.  Not only are such passages impenetrable, they create more problems than they solve. Students consistently misunderstand Grammar 4 explanations (remember: COIK).  They over-generalize when criticized for doing something wrong (e.g.: a because fragment is circled as wrong so the student learns to never use because).

According to Hartwell, the solution is to redefine grammar errors so we no longer judge them as cognitive or linguistic problems, no longer an issue of “not knowing a rule of grammar.  Most errors–the exceptions would be a few Grammar 3 usage issues, linguistically unnatural departures from the writer’s internal grammar–can be more productively perceived as “a problem of metacognition and metalinguistic awareness, a matter of accessing knowledges that, to be of any use, learners must have already internalized by means of exposure to the code.”  Cross-cultural research suggests that metalinguistic awareness is a fundamental feature of print literacy.   A host of studies disclose that native speakers of English, regardless of dialect, show the same patterning of errors, that the “surface features of spoken dialect are simply irrelevant to mastering print literacy.”  The complex cultural codes in printed texts are learned “from the top down, from pragmatic questions of voice, tone, audience, register, and rhetorical strategy, not from the bottom up, from grammar to usage to fixed forms of organization.”  Every student is mastering multiple literacies for multiple purposes.  Grammar 2 & 4 are irrelevant in helping students acquire mastery of these diverse literacies.

As for Grammar 5 (Stylistic Grammar), Hartwell identifies a potential value in this grammatical tradition because all its advocates agree “that one learns to control the language of print by manipulating language in meaningful contexts, not by learning about language in isolation, as by the study of formal grammar.”  No one understands how individuals gain metalinguistic awareness, though it is clear that competency is increased when we place people, to quote David T. Hakes, in a “literate environment with adult models who are themselves metalinguistically competent.”

A reasonable theory of language usage should lead us to expect that formal grammar instruction will not improve surface correctness or the quality of students’ writing--something that has been known for over 100 years.  A federal government report by the Committee of Ten (1893) stated that grammar instruction did not aid in textual correctness.  In the next decade, Franklin S. Hoyt published the results of a study confirming there is no “relationship between a knowledge of technical grammar and the ability to use English and to interpret language.”   Sixty years later, the first comprehensive study of writing pedagogy reached the same conclusion:  “In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing.” [Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer, Research in Written Composition, 1963.]
                                                                                                                                        ~Bob Marrs

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