Is grammar fixed and if not, should we teach it in schools?

There are really two views on this issue. Either grammar is set, with specific laws like Samuel Johnson would have liked it. If you take this view, then “ain’t” isn’t a word and so forth.

The other view is that grammar is more or less imaginary. Whatever a culture speks is the proper grammar.

If you take the second view, then teaching grammar in school is wrong. I mean, it’s at least hypocritical(sp.). What do you guys think?

One could certainly take the more moderate stance, realizing that the language changes in time and varies from region to region, group to group, and even person to person, but still recognizing that there is a difference between formal and informal speech and formal and informal writing, and that, right or wrong, students will be expected by certain people to conform to the standards of formal speech and writing.

(Grammar gurus are now invited to take me to task for writing such a long sentence.)

Grammar fixed not is! Grammar time with changes, certain to be. Believe me not? Article witness you The Onion from, at.

I think you may be confused when it comes to “the other view”. I don’t think anyone really believes grammar is imaginary. I’d venture to say that anyone who does believe this is an idiot. It should be obvious that grammar exists. What is slightly less obvious is that people almost never speak ungrammatically, whether they have been taught grammar or not.

The only people who truly speak ungrammatically are people with certain severe disabilities and people who are trying to speak a foreign language that they do not know well or that they learned late in life.

Most people who are accused of speaking ungrammatically are innocent of this charge. For example, Black English Vernacular (BEV, alias “Ebonics”) is a grammatically consistent dialect. It does not, however, follow the same set of rules as Standard English Vernacular (SEV). To an SEV speaker, the grammar of BEV or any other non-SEV dialect seems wrong. But it is not really ungrammatical, it is just different.

The point of teaching grammar in school is that it is not enough that a person’s speach be grammatically consistent. There are many situations in which someone who speaks only a non-SEV dialect will be at a disadvantage compared to someone who speaks SEV. A child who grows up in a non-SEV-speaking environment will not have the opportunity to pick up SEV naturally. Such a child could only learn to speak SEV if taught to do so.

Lamia beat me to the high points, but I’ll offer my $2/100 anyway.

Grammar is relatively fixed within each culture, but across cultures, it can vary widely. English, for example, generally uses the subject-verb-object construction for simple declarative sentences (“John gave the ball to Jane.”) although sometimes it uses S-O-V (“John gave Jane the ball.”). Other languages might use different constructions; Esperanto, IIRC (and I know I’ll be corrected if I don’t), is fairly open as to what constructions it uses.

I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching children grammar rules of those kinds. It would be very difficult to understand each other if some of us said “John gave the ball to Jane” and others said “The ball John to Jane gave,” or some of us used articles and cardinal numbers in speech and others did not. The language is going to change anyway; verbifying of nouns (and vice versa) both appear to proceed at a rapid pace, and spelling mutates all the time.

Tracer over the head Polycarp with a Weird Al Yankovic Yoda album hits. :smiley:

Seriously, professionals in the field describe grammars as prescriptive and descriptive, the former giving “rules for good X-ish” and the latter simply attempting to analyze how the tongue in question is actually spoken or written. The usually tacit assumption of the professional grammarian is that as a good social scientist he should be a descriptivist.

The truth is, of course, neither of the above.

One learns in early childhood the “rules” of conventional English, and in elementary school proper spelling. That these are not fixed is obvious by the fact that we can easily understand that, e.g., sk8rixtx thinks that creative spelling is kewl.

But in point of fact, just as good science requires peer review of experiments and replicability, so does good writing as it is commonly understood and practiced require a particular set of tools, called “formal English” by those who break English usage down socioculturally, and the rules of which must be learned. This is what prescriptive grammar attempts to codify. And within its own realm it is an appropriate discipline and not a stodgy, fustian obsolete attempt to restrict creativity.

I am free to write free verse. But if I choose to write a sonnet or a sestina, I must work within the standards set for them. If I compose a waltz, it had better be in 3/4 time. Though I can be an abstract expressionist, my representational art must fit within the scope of some school’s stylistic definitions. I am free to indulge in flights of speculation, but what I present as fact or solid theory must meet the expectations of the discipline in which I present it. Why should good English prose be any different?

Is grammar a science or an art? scientific pecepts are written more or less in stone, and don’t change over time along with the idiosynchracies of the general public. The same can not be said of grammar, and teachers who presume to teach it as though it were an exact science strike me as pompous. If you do not write an essay or compose a letter presicely as they have instructed you, you will fail.

Grammar should be taught as an art form. It is incumbent upon the student to compose a paragraph that is succinct as well as pleasing to the reader’s eye. Students in art class are not flunked for painting their apples green instead of red, and coloring outside of the lines is perfectly all right, depending on the message the artist is trying to convey.

Any teacher who downgrades his student because he insists that the word data must not be used in the singular sense needs a good swift kick in the pants.


Is mathematics fixed? Is Physics fixed? How about Chemistry?

Hmmm… new discoveries in any of these “hard” sciences seem to be changing what we were all were taught back when I was in school. Maybe we should stop teaching those too?

Learning Grammar is part of learning to communicate clearly. Therefore, even if it changes, it’s highly important that it be taught.


I second the previous posts by Lamia et al. I would add along these lines that it was once pointed out to me that the widely accepted rationale for not allowing double negatives because they “cancel each other out” has no relevence to language. (This guy cited some double negatives in Beowulf). The reason for a double negative being unacceptable and for any other language rule are not inherent, but are simply conventions. But they exist nonetheless.

Of course that should be precepts.

Polycarp: You have an annoying tendency to look into my mind, see what I am about to say, and say it ten times more eloquently than I ever could before I say it. Cut it out! :wink:


Mathematics is fixed in the sense that the operations of arithmatic are universally agreed upon and will never change. 10[sup]4[/sup] will always be 10000 regardless of what might be fashionable for 10[sup]4[/sup] to be 20 years from now.

Physics is fixed in the sense that we understand the laws of nature and do not expect them ever to change. At least not in the current oscillation cycle of the universe.

Chemistry is fixed in the sense that we know oxygen and hydrogen will always combine to form water, or possibly hydrogen peroxide. At no point in the future will they combine for form burlap.

Maybe if I had spelled precepts correctly, my point would have been more clear. Science is still a process of discovering, but the manner in which we discover (the evolution of theories) does not change.

Agreed, as long as the professor acknowledges that variations exists from region to region, neighborhood to neighborhood, and even from chair to chair within the same lecture hall.

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As a writer, I have always thought the rules of grammar are evolutionary. As something works and is expanded upon it is adopted. Remember, however, evolution is a slow process.

Should students, or anyone else for that matter, be held to the rules of grammar? Of course. The purpose of grammar is to facilitate communication. When we reject the rules out of hand, we inhibit communication.

If you look at it, the true innovators of any form of communications - painting, sculpture, music, writing, etc - have for the most part been masters of the original form before they made their changes. Look at Rembrandt, Mozart, Michelangelo, Hemingway and all the others.

Will the possessive apostrophe go the way of the dodo? Yes, possibly in another 100 years or so. But in the mean time, should students learn its correct use and be graded accordingly? Once again, yes.

No, grammar isn’t fixed. Yes, what is considered “correct” and “incorrect” is largely a matter of convention. Yes, it should be taught, but with less focus on “right” and “wrong” and much more emphasis on description.

The students in my English comp class can write a perfectly grammatical sentence (as most native speakers can), but they cannot look at what they have written and identify the subject or the main verb. Needless to say, this makes teaching them the difference between active and passive voice – something they do need to know in order to communicate effectively – almost impossible. I shudder to think what it would be like to teach them German. Meanwhile, many of them have memorized prescriptive rules but have only the vaguest idea how to apply them. (A colleague of mine had a student who was very proud of the fact that she never ended a sentence with the word “it” … apparently she was under the impression that “it” was a preposition.)

Clearly, there’s no point in teaching the “rules” of grammar without teaching the terminology and concepts first. Therefore, I think it’s important that students learn how the language works; if necessary, they can learn prescriptive rules for standard English later, always with the caveat that these are conventions and not absolutes.

Grammar should be taught if only because someone who cannot write grammatically faces severe prejudice from people who look at misused punctuation and misspelled words and think the writer must be a complete moron. Those people could be bosses, tecahers, supervisors, or even potential social contacts. It matters little. Grammar is a social convention as much as getting dressed nicely is a social convention: No, it is not set in stone what the specific rules are, but if you don’t conform to the rules in things like that you can expect people to treat you like less than you are. Grade schools might not be charm schools, but things like grammar fall under the heading of basic life skills, especially when it comes to official memoranda and applying for a position.

I’m more-or-less a language liberal, and I will take issue with language mavens who claim one mustn’t end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive. In fact, according to the Oxford Grammar Handbook (or similar title,) these rules are considered outdated. These days, it’s perfectly okay to say “to boldy go where no man has gone before.” Data and media as singular is also fine by me.

On the other hand, it is important to teach grammar, as we all have different levels of communication. I certainly change my vocabulary and sentence constructions based on what people I’m with, what context I am speaking, etc. It is important for people to have this ability to change levels of diction and to be able to shift into a more academic style of speaking when the occassion requires it.

In many cases, the use of “proper” grammar serves to create a class distinction. In many ways, it goes hand-in-hand with the prejudices that, say, having a strong working class accent would create. (Disclaimer: these thoughts are my opinion, and there may be cites to support them, and there may be cites to refute them, but this is simply my take on the situation.) As Lamia said, black English vernacular is, from a linguist’s point of view (and from mine,) a perfectly grammatical dialect. It has well-defined and consistant syntactical rules and functions as a natural language. Now, mainstream society looks down on “Ebonics” for the simple fact that it is a non-Standard dialect, and it sounds horribly ungrammatical to a Standard English speaker’s ears.

Although this prejudice is unfair, I believe there should be a somewhat standardized written language that is separate from the lingua franca, in order to facilliatate communication. At some point, we do have to apply consistency, lest language become a complete impediment to understanding. This applies to mostly work that I would qualify as academic writing. Creative writing obviously can follow whatever conventions it wishes.

I agree with what others have said, particularly regarding Ebonics. When the issue of teaching Ebonics in the Oakland schools was first raised, the media presented it as a silly excess of multi-culturalism, and I was inclined to agree, until I saw video of how Ebonics was actually taught. Students were not taught that “ain’t” is correct; they were taught that it is part of a different set of grammatical rules than those used in standard English. They were even given exercises in which they translated their everyday language into standard English. Essentially, they were taught exactly as they would have been taught in a non-Ebonics based English class, without the baggage of being told that the language they regularly used was “bad” or “wrong”. Instead of being handed a list of rules, they were taught why the rules are necessary (for cultural reasons). It seems to me that that kind of teaching, along with teaching grammar as mutable and explaining to students the various opinions that exist about certain grammar rules will produce adults who are not only able to conform to societal standards of speech, but also are better able to express their thoughts coherently, because they have an understanding of the fundamentals of language, and how words produce meaning.

pldennison wrote:

Yep – in Esperanto, word order is not as important as it is in English. This is because Esperanto, like Latin, uses case endings. The six Esperanto sentences “Haroldo batis Johanon,” “Johanon batis Haroldo,” “Batis Haroldo Johanon,” “Batis Johanon Haroldo,” “Haroldo Johanon batis,” and “Johanon Haroldo batis” ALL mean ‘Harold hit John.’ We know that “Johanon” is the direct object, not because of its position in the sentence, but because it ends in an “n”. Similarly, adjectives can come before or after the nouns they modify in Esperanto, and potential confusion is avoided because the adjective must have the same case ending that its noun does.

My spouse and I both learned grammar from a wonderful 7th grade teacher in 1955, including diagramming sentences. I think it was valuable. But who can teach this skill today? Based on the frequency of usage errors, even in top publcations, we may be the only two remaining Americans who know how to diagram a sentence.

I guess that’s an exaggeration.

This may be a harsh description, but there’s some truth in the concept.

While I have no power to hire or fire, I’m sometimes asked to review cover letters and resumes of those applying for a position at the small firm where I work.

Those with errors – even relatively minor ones – go right in the circular file. The errors tell me that this is a person who did not care enough to proof his or her submission, or who did not care enough more generally to learn to write the English language properly in the first place.

Given this, I have no reason to believe he or she will care enough to perform well on the job in other respects.

I have no problem with people communicating informally among a like group in whatever fashion they choose. But as others have said, there ought to be a common thread that guides and standardizes (and therefore facilitates) communication among disparate groups – at least those that ostensibly speak the same language.

I have one problem with “black English vernacular,” however. When I pick up my burger and fries at the drive-through window, the African-American young lady says, “Your change is 15 CENT.”

I have a hard time with the idea of discarding this most basic rule of English – that (a few non-standard plural formations excepted) two or more of something takes an “s,” and one of it does not. Is this truly one of the “well-defined and consistant syntactical rules” of Black English? Is a plural ALWAYS treated just the same as a singular? Or is something else going on here?

I couldn’t tell you the rules for plurals in BEV, but it would not be extraordinary if they were different from those used in SEV. Many languages and dialects do not follow the same rules for plurals as SEV, and some do not have plurals at all. A Japanese friend once told me that she always thought the distinctions made between singular and plural in English were silly and needlessly complex.