Surprise! English has a set of rules: Grammar


MY EIGHTH-grade daughter became the object of ridicule among her private school friends because she thought a "consonant" was one of the seven major land masses of the globe.

The poor child may have her mouth washed out with soap soon if she continues to begin sentences with "Whitney and me" despite frequent correcting from her previously adoring but currently very frustrated father.

My son came home from high school and -- just as he did when he was in grade school -- asked for the meaning of a word he just heard for the first time: "predicate." At 15, he cannot tell the difference among "there," "their" and "they're," and I fear for his future gainful employment.

Thanks to the nuns, my husband can diagram even the serpentine sentences George Will cobbles together. Thanks to my mother, poor grammar assaults my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. We both make our living putting punctuation marks inside quotation marks. But our children cause us to shake our heads and wonder: "Doesn't anyone teach grammar anymore?"

Apparently not.

Grammar, says the aptly named "Grammar Lady," was tossed over the side in the 1970s, a victim of the social turmoil of the times.

"Sometime, somewhere, someone decided learning rules for the sake of learning them wasn't 'relevant,' and everything you taught had to be relevant," says Mary Newton Bruder, who answers grammar questions over the phone (800-279-9708), online ( and in the newspaper from her home in Pittsburgh.

"And you couldn't hand a child his essay with all sorts of red marks on it because it would damage his self-esteem," she says.

In fact, the educational research of that time concluded that teaching grammar as a separate subject did nothing to improve students' writing. They were not applying the lessons they learned, and the nit-picking corrections merely frustrated them as they composed. It appears that punctuation and parts of speech were lost in the flood of unfettered creativity that followed.

Ask teachers, however, and they will swear they have been teaching grammar all along and are teaching it now as never before.

Paula Simon, coordinator of English and reading at the secondary level for Baltimore County, says every gathering of English teachers is loaded with workshops on every hot new way to teach grammar so it will stick.

"The problem is, there is no Velcro effect. Kids don't value it," says Simon. "Compared to reading and discussing literature, the business of language is boring to kids. Teachers are forever wrestling with ways to teach grammar so kids will learn it."

Patricia O'Conner, a former staff editor for the New York Times Book Review, has added a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down in two delightful resources she has written for grammar-phobes: "Woe Is I" and her new book, "Words Fail Me."

You can guess her position on the theory that kids can better learn grammar through the process of writing.

"It sounds great, but it doesn't work," says O'Conner from her home in Connecticut. She will be speaking, correctly, at Bibelot in Timonium on Oct. 16.

"It is not so much knowing the technical terms, which I try to avoid because I know they turn people off. It is more a matter that it has never been brought to their attention that English has a structure and there is a logical way that words go together. Now we have a whole generation of teachers teaching in schools who have never been taught grammar, and bad habits just get reinforced.

"People may not think it matters anymore. But how many statesmen of the world can you think of who speak substandard English?"

If the challenge of teaching English grammar is motivating the student to learn, there is nothing like real life to provide that motivation.

For college-bound kids, the College Board has added a writing assessment to the PSAT. Now that great stressor of teen-agers comes in three flavors: math, verbal and grammar.

"We decided to do it for some of the same reasons you are looking at," says Jan Gams, spokesman for the College Board in New York. "There is anecdotal evidence that kids are not prepared with verbal skills when they get to college and remediation is increasing because of it."

The PSATs are returned to the schools so teachers can see exactly where their students' grammatical weaknesses lie and correct them.

"The schools are not happy with the results," says Beth Robinson, director of the PSAT and National Merit Scholars Qualifying Test for the College Board. "And this is an area where they think they can improve."

On every level of education, writing as a way to assess what children have learned is increasing. Kids are required to keep journals in every class from painting and drawing to weight- lifting. And the teachers outside the English department are noticing that the kids can't write.

Meanwhile, the business world is howling that the high school graduates it hires can't compose a simple declarative sentence and that it is sick of spending its resources teaching employees the punctuation and mechanics they should have learned in grade school. Businesses are pressuring the schools in their states to do a better job.

These external pressures, more than complaints from Grandma that everyone learned to diagram sentences when she was in school, may be what motivates schools to reinforce grammar no matter how reluctant the student.

Interestingly, the equivalent of an exit poll given students who take the SAT asks if they had course work in English grammar in high school. Seventy-four percent of seniors in the class of 1999 said yes; 20 years ago, that number was almost 90 percent.

"Something is going on with English teaching," says Gams of the College Board. "These are college-bound kids. What about the other kids?"

It could be that Baltimore County's Paula Simon is correct: My son may have indeed heard the words "predicate" and "direct object" sometime in his academic life. They just didn't "stick."

"I've been teaching since 1973," says Simon, "And veteran teachers were saying then, 'These kids don't know any grammar.' If I live to 2050, I expect teachers will still be saying it."

She defends the current thinking that grammar should not be taught in isolation by saying, "The only hope we have is showing kids that it has some effect on their speaking and writing."

That schoolkids don't find the mechanics of grammar and punctuation an entertaining learning experience is no surprise. But using the "teachable moments" presented by the mistakes in their essays and compositions isn't getting it done.

"Children should know the names for parts of speech by third grade," says Grammar Lady Bruder. "By sixth grade, they should know basic grammar. In junior high and high school, they should be using that grammar in increasingly complex ways."

The Grammar Lady has been answering grammar questions since 1988. She is discouraged about the state of grammar education, she says, because she is answering the same questions -- the difference between its and it's, for example.

But something more worries her.

"A woman called today and asked the difference between affect and effect." It's a common question, says the Grammar Lady.

"When I told her that one was a noun and the other a verb, there was this long pause.

"Then she asked me how to tell a noun from a verb."

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