BMCR 2003.12.15

The War Against Grammar

, The war against grammar. CrossCurrents. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2003. xv, 128 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0867095512. $20.00.

A couple of years ago in an introductory Latin class of twenty-five students I asked if anyone knew what a participle was. After a long silence someone said, “They aren’t supposed to dangle.” That was the sum total of the class’s knowledge of participles. The War Against Grammar contains a number of similar stories. One bit of grammatical advice has been drilled into students before they get to college and that is “Avoid the passive voice.” It now turns out, however, that many students and some of their teachers do not know what the passive voice is. A professor of English from Ball State U. reports that students think “passive is used of sentences in which the subjects do not exert themselves. Hence … they (and some of their teachers) end up classifying sentences that speak of experiences — e.g. ‘I feel your pain’ — as passive.” David Mulroy, professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has noticed with dismay students’ ignorance of grammar for many years, and now he’s done something about it. He’s written an excellent book and he’s made a powerful case for the importance of grammar.

In 1996 Mulroy attended a public hearing on academic standards for the public schools. When he innocently suggested that “high school seniors be required to identify the eight parts of speech,” much to his surprise he found himself embroiled in a controversy. So exercised did he become upon learning inter alia that according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) “decades of research had shown that instruction in formal grammar did not accomplish any positive goals and was actually harmful because it took time away from more profitable activities” that he set aside his special interest, translating Latin and Greek poetry, and devoted several years to researching the history of the study of grammar. This book represents the fruit of that research. It is both a serious work of scholarship and an expose.

How did the bizarre notion that knowledge of formal grammar is not only useless but could be detrimental arise? According to Mulroy the story begins with Charles Fries of the University of Michigan whose 1952 book, The Structure of English“lent weight to the false belief that modern linguistics had discredited traditional grammar.” This mistaken notion was picked up by NCTE, and subsequently promulgated in three publications, one in 1963 dealt with composition and “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 harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” An official NCTE resolution issued in 1985 stated that “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and … that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than the improvement of writing.” A 1991 article on “Grammar and Usage” as interpreted by Mulroy, proclaims that “the teaching of traditional grammar is not just useless but pernicious.” I suspect that something else is also at work here. A postmodern scholar has written that “grammar is an oppressive technology.” Although few of us would consider grammar “technology,” I assume that this means that a person who knows grammar can easily “put down” those who don’t, for example some of society’s many victims, thereby damaging their self-esteem. Lest this happen, let us not teach grammar to anyone.

Opposition to the teaching of grammar is now almost universal among professors of education and the 80,000 members of NCTE — almost, but not quite. In 2000 Mulroy attended the annual conference of ATEG (The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar). There were fewer than thirty in attendance!

The rest of chapter 1 deals with adult literacy (lower among those who were educated in the ’60s and ’70s when opposition to grammar arose than among older adults), the decline of SAT scores, the need for remedial English on the college level, and the decline in the percentage of students taking foreign languages in college (16.5% in 1965 to 7.8% in 1977). Mulroy thinks students have difficulty with foreign languages because they were not taught English grammar in grade school; there can be little doubt about this. Foreign language teachers have responded to declining enrollments by stressing culture, hoping students will absorb the language as they study maps and menus and monuments. Mulroy took his son out of public school and began home-schooling him when homework in French consisted of making a dessert of mangoes and powered sugar, “a favorite [dessert] in Francophone Africa!”

Mulroy not only knows grammar and literary criticism and history, he is also something of a philosopher. Following Searle he argues that sentences have a literal meaning and following Kant he argues for two kinds of judgements, determinate and reflective. Giving the literal meaning of a text requires a determinate judgement. Grammarless students are unable to figure out the literal meaning of difficult sentences even though they may have adequate vocabularies and be able to express themselves orally.

Chapter 2 is short but crammed with insights. It starts with a brief history of Greece stressing the importance of the alphabet for the “Greek enlightenment.” This is followed by a history of the seven liberal arts. According to Mulroy, “the value of grammar was never challenged” until our day. Grammar is the first liberal art. The study of grammar has two goals: “It preserves and perfects understanding of the great literature of the past and it contributes to eloquent self-expression.” “Questioning the value of grammar is like asking whether farmers should know the names of their crops and animals.” Putting it another way, given that words constitute the essence of the intellectual life, a scholar or student who doesn’t know the parts of speech is like a surgeon who doesn’t know the parts of the body. Chapter 2 concludes with an excellent discussion of taxonomy and the traditional eight parts of speech. “As in any practical taxonomy, limits must be placed on the number of distinctions…” The important word here is practical; a practical taxonomy provides guidance not “theoretical exactitude.” Long use and widespread acceptance attest to the value of the eight parts of speech although theoreticians could subdivide verbs and nouns almost ad infinitum.

Chapter 3 continues the history of the study of grammar. Mulroy has discovered that ours is not the only age to neglect grammar, although it seems to be the first to explicitly deny its value. During the heyday of Scholasticism (ca. 1100-1400) grammar was “relegated to the margins.” From the fall of Rome until the late medieval period the tradition of the seven liberal arts with emphasis on grammar had been kept alive by monks. Mulroy believes that Abelard deserves credit for popularizing the disputatio which led to an almost exclusive focus on logic to the neglect of grammar and the other liberal arts during the medieval period: “By 1215 classical literature was completely absent from the Paris’ liberal arts curriculum: no poetry, no history, no rhetoric, no ethics — just logic.” There were other factors contributing to the emphasis on logic and the eclipse of grammar — the discovery and translation of parts of Aristotle’s Organon (hitherto unknown), an emphasis on oral Latin as the lingua franca, and the rise of speculative grammar which, then as now, in Mulroy’s opinion, led to a decline in the study of practical grammar. (There were, however two bastions of practical grammar and classical literature — Orleans and Chartres, and one great champion of them, John of Salisbury who wrote that “We find men who profess all the arts, liberal and mechanical, but who are ignorant of this very first one [grammar] without which it is futile to go on to attempt the others” (emphasis added). But John of Salisbury did not oppose the study of logic; his thesis was that “Logic needs to be grounded in the preliminary study of grammar and literature.” Translated into contemporary terms, this would be “Critical thinking must be based on mastery of grammar.”

It is always exciting and illuminating to reread history viewing events from a new vantage point. Mulroy has done this examining the role grammar has played. Thus, with Paul Oscar Kristeller, he claims that Renaissance humanists “did not subscribe to any revolutionary philosophical doctrines.” Their interests and tastes were different from those of the scholastics, and they sought “to revive the studies of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy.” Latin grammar had to be studied in order to understand classical literature. Paradoxically the renewed study of the grammar of classical Latin seems to have stimulated interest in the grammars of vernacular languages and the development of vernacular literature. (See p. 53 on Italy and p. 59, note 19 on Spain, France and Germany.) Mulroy observes, “Grammar’s dual role, preserving or reviving the appreciation of literary classics and creating new eloquence was never illustrated more dramatically.” A somewhat similar thing happened in England, thanks to Erasmus, John Colet, William Lily, and Henry VIII, by whose decree a Latin grammar by Colet and Lily was prescribed for all the schools in England. Among those reared on this grammar were Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Ford, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

Chapter 4 starts with a history of “progressive education,” as a revolt against liberal arts education, a revolt that affected both content and pedagogy and put American education on a “collision course with grammar.” With his usual even-handed approach Mulroy sees some good in progressive education and its original desire to provide vocational training for those not planning to attend college. As far as methodology is concerned, progressive educators had a low opinion of what they called “formalism,” a vague notion which Mulroy thinks involves “determinate judgements” and is “based on the assumption that for any given question there is one correct answer which the teacher knows and the students must be trained to produce.”

Dewey, however, Mulroy tells us, advocated a “proper balance between the formal and the informal.” He would object to the neglect of the former which has led to “America the Grammarless” (the title of Chapter One). But the person who did more than anyone else to undermine the teaching of grammar was William Kilpatrick who taught ca. 35,000 future teachers at Columbia between 1918 and 1938. Kilpatrick, described by Mulroy as an “educational extremist,” advocated “projects that students would select for themselves and bring to completion in their own ways.” He opposed all subjects that were “fixed in advance.” Another champion of progressive education, Franklin Bobbitt, thought students needed “sensitive sentence-sense and a feeling for grammatical relationships” imbibed from the “language atmosphere.” His position on knowledge of grammar grew more extreme: “Language activities should be unconscious and automatic as possible.” Teaching grammar for Bobbitt, Mulroy concludes “is not only unnecessary it is apparently detrimental.” This position remains to this day the dominant position in education circles and, strange as it may seem, among teachers of English. Why, one wonders have college and university professors of English been silent on this subject for the past seventy-five years?

A persistent problem has resulted from confusing practical pedagogy and speculative grammar. Because linguists such as Fries have raised question regarding the definition of sentences and the adequacy of the traditional eight parts of speech, teachers have concluded that traditional definitions should no longer be taught. It is good to know that Chomsky himself does not make this mistake. “. . . he explicitly stated that traditional grammar, not transformational, was an essential component of a good education.” It is also nice to know that Chomsky’s definition of a sentence (S = NP & VP) expresses symbolically Aristotle’s definition. The concluding section of Chapter 4 provides the reader with diagrams of thirteen sentences including one in Latin, Italian, German and French. Mulroy compares a “tree diagram”(favored by contemporary linguists) of a ten word sentence with a traditional “Reed-Kellogg” diagram. The former uses twenty-nine different lines and seventeen labels. The latter, ten strokes and no labels (but it must be admitted that the purposes are slightly different).

Chapter 5 takes up the question “What can be done?” Wanting to end on a positive note, if possible, Mulroy describes what is being done in England. In 1998 the government made mastery of grammar the core of its National Literacy Strategy. Concluding that teachers’ lack of knowledge of grammar and punctuation was a major problem, the Education Secretary issued a 216-page guide and found funds for all 5th and 6th grade teachers to attend workshops. Mulroy urges us to imitate this laudable effort. There follow some insightful remarks regarding the “standards movement,” e.g. the inappropriateness of applying “content standards” and “performance standards” which are fine for math to humanistic subjects. The chapter concludes with descriptions of four highly successful schools which stress mastery of grammar.

This is an excellent book and a much-needed one which I recommend with all the enthusiasm I can generate. The War Against Grammar is based on solid and pains-taking research and much erudition; it is well written and balanced. If this book is widely read, it will cause a firestorm of anger and resentment. Let us hope it is.