Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Grammar: Defying Definition beyond Two Millennia

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Grammar: Defying Definition beyond Two Millennia

Article excerpt


No consensus has been reached regarding the definition of grammar since the term came into existence more than two millennia ago. The article illustrates how terminology has developed, changed and always presented problems from ancient times to the present. Problems have included both its definition and what to call its practitioners regardless of the definition of grammar. Consequently, grammar is a problem term when discussing it, reading about it, or teaching it. Definitions and approaches are presented and discussed, particularly the author's classroom use.

Grammar Definitions for Educators

In 2001, Ed Vavra posted his views on qualitative grammatical analysis to a professional listserve. This virtual forum served the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. (ATEG). Among the problems in conducting such studies was deciding what was meant by the term grammar. Vavra lamented, "... even in this group [the ATEG] there is little agreement on the definition of grammar. Are we talking usage or syntax?" Productive discussions of whether, what kind of, how grammar should be taught cannot occur without knowing speakers' and writers' definition of grammar.

In an earlier issue of this journal, (Hoffman, 2003) I related course-content conclusions resulting from instructor deliberations about course curriculum. The content under consideration was for a course on what elementary and secondary teachers needed to know about language. For reasons of scope, I had limited the focus of the article. The focus was what to teach teachers about grammar and what to teach teachers about teaching grammar.

It may sound superficial and obvious to state that I had wanted to insure that students knew what they were writing about. When students write without apparent understanding, the common explanations include either instructor failure, or student lack of ability or application. However, whenever the term grammar was part of a discussion, something particular happened. Nearly all students defended their grammar views vehemently, blithely assuming that anyone reading their work would share their respective definitions of it. This unconscious attitude, hardly limited to students, relates to the remarks by Vavra and by various authors cited in the following discussion.

A Persistent and Protracted Problem for Educators

To prevent (or more accurately reduce) such uninformed use of terminology, I require my students to identify each occurrence of "grammar" or "grammatical." Students have to identify both what they mean by the term as well as what they believe that their cited authors meant. I lower grades in assignments where students misidentify or fail to identify both terms' use. Despite discussing definitions in class, listing them in the syllabus, and on my course web-page, the task overwhelms many students. Students demonstrate their understanding by placing a number after the terms grammar and grammatical in their own writing and in cited text. The numbers which my students must place after the terms corresponded to Patrick Hartwell's assignments in his well-known 1985 article on grammar. Hartwell's article expanded upon an earlier 1954 article on the subject by W. Nelson Francis. While reviewing Francis for my own AEQ article, I noticed several other articles in a collection (Allen, 1964). John S. Kenyon (1948) discussed confusion among the terms philology, rhetoric and linguistics, a problem is his era. James B. Macmillan (1954) was concerned with people inadequately distinguishing informal from nonstandard English. Karl W. Dykema (1961) discussed grammar among other terms. The dates of these article show that those concerned with grammar and related terms have had concerns over confusion of terminology negatively impacting the classrooms of various eras. Unaddressed in my previous article was my learning, from Dykema's article, how long people have differed and disputed about grammar-related terminology. …

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