Let's stop teaching traditional schoolroom "grammar" entirely, Mr. Schuster suggests. There is no good reason to continue wounding youngsters with something they will never learn and never need. And, while we're at it, let's deal with usage and mechanics in gentle, encouraging, nontechnical, and innovative ways.
ON A fine spring morning several years ago, while I was serving as English supervisor for a city school system, I was called to observe a first-grade language arts lesson. The teacher, Ms. Abbott, began by giving three children cards marked respectively Noun, Verb, and Adjective and sending each of them to a separate corner. In the fourth corner, the other students took turns picking word cards out of a pile, after which they were expected to march their word to the correct corner.
Amy was third; her word was "wet." I can see her still: a pretty, frail waif with a blonde ponytail, frozen in doubt. Finally, she drifted to the Verb corner. "Amy!" Ms. Abbott thundered. "Think! Isn't 'wet' a picture word?"
By this time Amy was shaking and in tears (wetting her face?). I have never forgotten her. And I have never quite forgiven Ms. Abbott.
The teaching of this sort of traditional school grammar extends throughout the grades, even into college, and everywhere it is a staggering, Pentagonesque waste -- a waste of time and money, a waste of wounds to students. Until we stop teaching it, there will never be significant reform in the English language arts.
What Is 'Grammar'?
The first step toward reform is to define terms. While to a layperson "grammar" may refer to practically anything (especially if it involves "errors"), professional educators should be more discriminating. Without belaboring the point, I would like to make a few fundamental distinctions.
First, "grammar" should not include spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, which are covered by the general term "mechanics" and which concern the written language only.
Second, we should make a basic distinction between grammar as 1) the set of formal patterns -- rules, if you wish -- in which words are arranged to convey meanings and 2) the description and analysis of these formal patterns. What I will call traditional school grammar is one example of grammar in the second sense; another would be transformational generative grammar.
Third, we must attempt to discriminate between "grammar" and "usage." Compare your reactions to the following sentences:
A. Where's the teacher English?
B. Where's the English teacher at?
If English is your native language, the first sentence left you baffled, at least momentarily. In contrast, you understood the second perfectly, though it may have provoked a frown or even set your teeth on edge. I suggest that question A violates a grammatical rule (viz., that modifiers precede headwords), while question B violates a rule of (standard) usage.
The notion that a grammatical rule is violated by ending a sentence with a preposition is easily disproved. "Where is the teacher?" asks for his or her location in space. If one wishes to know the teacher's origin, the natural question is "Where is the teacher from?" and not "From where is the teacher?" Indeed, it is the second of these sentences, not the first, that verges on ungrammaticality. Of the "rule" that one should not end a sentence with a preposition, the poet John Milton said, "What a fine conformity would it [the rule] starch us all into."
"Grammar," then, refers to an internalized set of rules that determine whether words and phrases communicate an intended meaning. If a communication is correctly understood by a native speaker, then that communication is grammatical.
Grammar, in this sense, is built into our heads. As Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, points out in The Language Instinct, language is as instinctive for human beings as spinning a web is for a spider, every 3-year-old is a grammatical genius, and the design of our syntax is "coded in our DNA and wired into our brains."1 While empiricists may dispute the claim about the coding/wiring, everyone will acknowledge that we have a deep, intuitive feel for the grammar of our native language. And it is true that nobody has to teach native speakers the grammar of their language; they already know it at a very early age.
To further elaborate, consider a hypothetical case of two young children. Let us suppose that the first child was cheated by nature and nurture, would never learn to read or write, and lived in a rural community isolated from the larger world in every possible way. We'll suppose that the second child was privileged by both nature and nurture, learned to read and write before entering kindergarten, and lived in a busy suburban community at the heart of the larger world.
Would the two children speak differently? They surely would. Would either of them speak a sentence like "English the where teacher is"? They would not -- because both would have internalized the same system of rules.
This does not mean that everyone knows the system equally well. The coding and the wiring are weaker in some of us than in others. I have rarely observed a classroom, from elementary on up, in which there was not at least a student or two who appeared to be better wired than the teacher, and I have only rarely addressed a workshop in which there was not a teacher or two better wired than I am, grammatically speaking. But barring brain dysfunction, everyone -- every 3-year-old -- knows much more about the grammar of her native language than the thickest grammar textbook.
By way of further illustration, consider the sentence "Both of the girls are particular (i.e., fussy), but the particular particular girl I mean is Gracie." A native speaker "knows" that the second of the two adjacent particulars means "fussy." How does he know it? Because he has internalized a grammatical rule that specifying modifiers precede descriptive modifiers. This rule is not stated in any school grammar textbook, nor indeed is one likely to find any discrimination between these types of adjectives in such books.
"Usage," on …