Grammar and Writing
Grammar is a system for describing language. Some people believe that it also constitutes a theory of language. This chapter provides a brief discussion of some of the characteristics and goals of different grammars and offers an analysis of the relation between grammar and writing. The aims are twofold: to help teachers gain a better understanding of what grammar is about and to enable them to evaluate the role of grammar instruction in their writing classes.
Perhaps the majority of parents and teachers believe that teaching writing entails teaching grammar. Consequently, grammar has played a significant role in language classes for generations. The grammar taught in most schools is traditional grammar, which has roots in ancient Greece but is largely based on Latin. Traditional grammar is fundamentally prescriptive; its principal concern is the question of language correctness. It operates on the assumption that literary language is better than spoken language, and thus its focus often is literature (see Lehmann, 1983; Leiber, 1975; Lyons, 1970; Scargill & Penner, 1966). Because everyday language differs from the language of literature, traditional grammar necessarily views speech as inherently inferior to writing ( Lyons, 1970).
Around the beginning of the 20th century, a number of language scholars began to recognize that traditional grammar failed them when they tried to describe the language of certain American Indian tribes. They were forced to develop a new grammar to meet their needs--a grammar based on phrases rather than on parts of speech, a grammar that was descriptive rather than prescriptive. The new grammar was named constituent analysis, but it later became known as phrase-structure grammar ( Bloomfield, 1933).
In the mid- 1950s, a young linguist named Noam Chomsky argued that phrase-structure grammar failed to account for a variety of language features, such as passive sentences, and in 1957, he published a