Getting Grammatical

If I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m taking a class on Rhetoric and Composition Theory for my Masters. We’re looking at the conversation between historical rhetorical studies and composition studies, which are both entirely out of my comfort zone. My emphasis is literature (specifically, medieval) so forging my way through rhetoric and composition isn’t exactly easy. To be honest, reading composition theory can sometimes more challenging than reading literary theory (but only sometimes).

This week, my professor paired Patrick Hartwell’s 1985 “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” with our readings on Renaissance rhetoric. While I haven’t yet drawn the connection between the two, I was intrigued by Hartwell’s article (and way more than Peter Ramus and Francis Bacon combined).

Since I’m also taking a course on linguistics right now, this article spoke to the ideas of that course, not only in the “Grammar 1” and “Grammar 2” sections, but also in the general idea that formal grammar education is less helpful than we think it. I loved Hartwell’s point about “redefining error,” since I think that’s indicative of most grammatical issues. Most of the time, I can’t recite specific grammar rules because I never really learned them explicitly. I learned through acquisition and internalization. Besides, my linguistics professor says that prescriptive rules aren’t really worth their weight and I’m inclined to agree.

While I’m sure that I did receive formal training, I never did sentence diagramming or the likes. Sure, maybe my writing is weaker because of it but I don’t feel that I’m a poorer writer as a result of never diagramming. Maybe I can’t toss out the terminology but I can pretty much work out how a sentence works without having that terminology. And is that a bad thing, really?

Ideally, I would hope that my students can likewise internalize grammar rather than recite by rote. As my I prepare lesson plans for a beginning composition class full of non-native English speakers, I’m hesitant to use rigid rules or complex worksheets. If I can’t explain it in my own terminology and have to rely entirely on unfamiliar words, I can’t help them learn. And I want to help them learn. I don’t really have a good idea for how to do just that, so I’m definitely welcoming suggestions.