From a Grammar of Sentences to a Grammar of Texts: Thoughts and Impressions on Grammar and Writing

Article excerpt

Abstract

Throughout his ten years of teaching writing and literature at the college level, the author observed with great interest the paralyzing effect that the lack of preparation in grammar has on students when they are given writing assignments. When students are challenged to express their thoughts in a more appropriate academic style, they generally show various responses to that challenge. Some students simply freeze and do not write at all; others express anger and frustration when their writing is "rejected" by the writing instructor. This essay emphasizes the importance of reconciling the teaching of grammar and genre to help students bring together two fundamental aspects of discourse: style and genre. By doing so, teachers of language and writing will help students go beyond a grammar of sentences and reach a grammar of discourse, which is traditionally referred to as discourse analysis.

On Grammar and Writing

In The Nuptials of Philology and Mercury, Martianus Capella, a rhetorician from Carthage, draws a nice allegorical picture of the seven liberal arts, which made his work highly attractive to the Middle Ages. According to Capella, at the nuptials of Philology and Mercury, the bride receives as a wedding gift the seven liberal arts personified as women. The first part of this gift is Grammar, represented as a severe old woman, carrying a knife and file with which to remove children's grammatical errors. The second item is Rhetoric, represented as a tall, beautiful woman, wearing a rich dress decorated with the figures of speech and carrying weapons with which to wound her adversaries (pp. 268-270). We encounter the same image in the work of Theodulphus of Orleans, who portrayed Grammar with a whip and shears to spur the lazy and to prune faults.

When I first met my Traditional and Modern Grammars class at the University of Northern Colorado in 1997, the anxiety on the faces of the students made me almost feel that I was back in the times of Martianus Capella and Theodulphus of Orleans. The course that I was about to deliver was "a gift" from the academy, but it was certainly not a gift that the students looked forward to. This was a 200-level course, and yet most of the students who signed up for the class were juniors and seniors who stalled this course until the last semester in their career as college students. Grammar was definitely not a friendly course to take since it was associated with the idea of discipline and punishment. Many of them most likely learned some grammar at high school. It was almost equally certain that they were bored by it. The irony is that these students, most of whom were English majors with a liberal arts emphasis or an elementary and secondary school teaching emphasis, clearly constituted the new task force of teachers who would eventually spare school children the trouble of learning any grammar, because grammar was dropped from the curriculum and their students might well never know the difference between an adjective and a verb in their lives. Those very few students with keen interest in the study of grammar and discourse would have to go to departments of linguistics to learn about the structure of the English language.

The word "grammar" derives from grammatike or grammatike techne, which in classical Greek meant "the art of writing." Grammaticus was considered a connoisseur of the word, the expression, and the form of discourse. From these definitions and from the story of Martianus Capella, we can draw a number of consequences, some of which have been thoroughly examined by linguists from different schools. Firstly, in a widely literate society such as ours, we are presented with the challenge of the primacy of writing over speech. Current spoken language, particularly in the academy, is subjected to the rules of traditional grammar. Secondly, written language is the language of education and power. Today, though all humans are virtually endowed with the faculty of speech, they still willingly or unwillingly acknowledge the power of writing. …