The Evolution of Grammar: How Do We Teach It?

Grammar is often considered to be a boring and frustrating part of an English education for many students.  So many times throughout my middle and high school education grammar lessons were difficult to get through, as we often did not see the value in what we were learning.  For myself, going over “there,” “their,” and “they’re” at least twice every year was tedious, and spending entire class periods discussing when not to use contractions such as “don’t” in essay writing was a waste of time.  These were things that seemed obvious to me, and I never understood why we had to discuss it every single year.

However, in Geoffrey Nunberg’s 1997 article “The Decline of Grammar,” there is a major discussion of how the state of English grammar is declining, and what critics think should be done about it.  Almost two decades after Nunberg’s article, the issue of grammar remains an issue for critics of English as well as English teachers.  As a future teacher, I found it interesting to look at some of the reasoning given by Nunberg for the different outlooks on the evolution of grammar, as it will play a role in any future classes I teach.

Nunberg mentions how English is viewed as a “liberal” art, and yet there is a conservative slant to the issue of grammar.  For many English critics, an evolving grammatical structure to the language is a preposterous idea, and one that is harmful for future generations.  Many view the changing dynamics unfavorably, which causes dissent between those who adopt these changes and those who refuse to do so.  This struggle between two ideals can be seen in schools, where some teachers often try to enforce grammar rules and structures that are fading, while others try to adapt local grammatical structures, like vernacular and technological slang, in their classrooms.

For many students, the issue of when to use certain grammatical practices is often not properly explained.  They are not told that the way they speak with parents, friends, and even teachers is not necessarily the way they should respond to essay questions, which can hinder their chances when it comes to applications for colleges, scholarships, or future jobs.  This learning gap in regards to grammar hurts their future, and while teachers are becoming more accepting of the idea of incorporate vernaculars into their classrooms, the continuing struggle to teach proper grammar affects the students who need it most.

While I believe that language is an evolving being, and we should be teaching our students to adapt to these changes and embrace the vernaculars that are part of their cultures, there is still a gap that prevents students who do not understand the “proper” grammatical forms from succeed.  I believe that teachers, and not just the ones who deal with English, should devote class time to showing students when certain grammatical practices are necessary, and when their typical vernacular will suffice.  By creating a school setting with the same grammatical standards in each subject, students will be able to learn these rules while still using the vernaculars that are more comfortable for them.

One thought on “The Evolution of Grammar: How Do We Teach It?”

  1. I find your conversation about Nunberg pretty interesting. I taught his article several times in a course entitled “The Uses of Grammar” and was most struck by what I felt was his use of grammar to maintain a social class system which put him at the top. It has been several years since I last read him, but I remember that I wanted to throttle him. Grammar was going to the dogs, arf arf, but only some people could see that, Saint Nunberg being one of that number, of course. And those people who could see the language’s degeneration were those who had gone to the right schools….as journalists, for example, had not.

    Hence, I began to see Nunberg, and a great many other hand-wringers over the state of the language writers, as more intent upon “correct” grammar as a mechanism for social control than anything else. We all speak and write in numerous registers, have multiple literacies. Some of us are more conscious of those varities of registers, and have more registers, than others of us. Grammar is culture; without it, we do not know and cannot teach. It “owns” us.

    Thanks for the pleasure of being able to be part of your conversation.

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