This article was published in The Economist on March 19th, 2014
Some advice is worse than useless. A short list of bullet points from eHow, a website, that is passing around social networks purports to show “how to write good.” (Each rule was jokingly broken in explaining it.) Unfortunately, it will not help most people write good. Two of the rules explained not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition. But both “split infinitives” and sentence-ending prepositions have been native to English, used by the finest writers, for centuries. The rest of the eHow list included the injunction that “the passive voice is to be avoided”. But sadly, many writers, even professionals, cannot recognise the grammatical passive voice. (Here is a compendium of examples of writers calling out others for using the passive, when no passive has been used.)
The public understanding of grammar is in bad shape. There is blame to go round, but the simplest approach is to look at the teaching of the subject known as “English” at schools and universities.
Many schools have downplayed grammar teaching, so much so that pupils often first encounter words like “past participle” and “subordinate clause” in a foreign-language class, not in English. Traditional sentence-diagramming, though flawed, at least once taught students to break a sentence into its syntactic parts. Systematic grammatical analysis is now as hard to find as an inkwell in a school. Schools focus—rightly, as far as it goes—on getting students to organise their thoughts into essays. But they have de-emphasised the art of organising words into phrases, phrases into clauses, and clauses into well-crafted sentences. Many school-leavers in English-speaking countries cannot even say what a clause is. How are they supposed to systematically craft good ones?
But the problem goes deeper, to teacher training. Many English teachers struggle as much as students with phrases and clauses. They can correct common mistakes (“don’t confuse ‘effect’ and ‘affect’”) and teach punctuation (“it’s” versus “its”). But many could not confidently and correctly break the words of a complex sentence down by function. This seems to be due to a divorce long ago between the study of language itself and what college departments teach future teachers in the “English” departments.
In short, university English departments teach literature, not language. In Johnson's brief look at the English-major requirements for five top American universities, not one requires a course on the English language itself. The picture is similar in Britain and elsewhere.
English majors become English teachers. They have spent years learning how to analyse poems, stories, novels and plays—but, in the average case, not a single semester analysing sentences. This is reflected in schools’ curricula: designed by former English graduates, they often require year after year of literature, but not a single focused course on the language itself. Many teachers must squeeze grammar teaching in where possible. Of course many good English teachers understand, and teach, English grammar well. But it is too often despite, rather than because of, their own university training.
The study of language itself has fallen to a separate academic field: linguistics. Unfortunately, linguistics and English departments have little to no interaction. Linguists have learned much about English grammar in the past century, but since linguistics became its own discipline, it has focused on its own narrow internal debates, with little of the influence that (say) psychology or economics have on the wider world, even though language is a topic of intense interest.
As a result of the divorce of language and literature, linguistics has developed an entire hoard of basic terms to describe sentences that are utterly unknown to English teachers. Take “determiner”. This is a basic class of words that includes the, a, an, three, this, that, my, his, many and many others. The reason linguists talk about determiners is that they all play the same kind of syntactical role, and are quite different from adjectives, the category they’ve traditionally been crammed into. Many other basic terms of syntax, like “complement” and “adjunct”, are virtually uknown outside the field, though they’re crucial for understanding how English grammar works.
The upshot is that those responsible for teaching English in schools pass on rules they memorised in high school, rather than a university-level understanding of grammar itself. It would be as though chemistry teachers taught “don’t drink mercury”, “hydrochloric acid is corrosive” and “burn this and it will yield a blue flame”, but had only a fuzzy understanding of particles, atoms and molecules.
Therefore, a small proposal: English departments should require an interdisciplinary class with linguistics on the grammar of the English language. Literature departments should cultivate more scholars who focus on language itself rather than literature alone. (Their academic research could focus on historical changes in English; how literary writers employ grammar devices; data-driven analysis of great English writing; the use of dialect and non-standard English; and so on.) In exchange, linguistics departments should require their students to take an English department class, to let those scientifically minded students broaden their horizons with the close reading of literary texts.
This should then pass through to schools. Linguistics and English departments should talk at conferences about how to improve pupils’ and students’ learning of language analysis, with a view to reviving and modernising grammar in schools. The upper years of high school should include a course focused purely on the language, rather than squeezing grammar teaching into literature courses.
Telling students not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions is wrong. But it would be only a small improvement to teach: “Split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions.” It would be much better to teach what a preposition really does, and how an infinitive really behaves. Understanding is tougher than memorisation. But on the bright side, students would come away not just with a memorised list of “do this, don’t do that,” but with a real appreciation for the intricate clockwork that is English grammar.