Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

Doug left this link to a post on the difficulty of searching Google when you don’t know what the thing you’re looking for is called:

What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:

Part of the car that covers the engine pixelcity2_hood

[snip]

Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.

Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.

It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.

My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.

So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is. 

Here’s an example.

In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):

Do you mind my sitting here?

or

Do you mind me sitting here?

I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)

I had no idea how to look up the answer.

I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.

So I didn’t know to search forpossessives in front of gerunds.”

I eventually figured it out, but it would have been a lot easier if someone had just told me what a gerund was when I was 10.

Vocabulary is a good thing.

People should teach it.
~

Postscript

I’ve just skimmed Paul Brians’ page on gerunds and pronouns. I like this:

This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.

It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”

But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.

That matters.

When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.

2 thoughts on “Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

    1. I was taught explicit grammar, including sentence diagramming, out of Warriner’s Grammar in public school for two years in 1976-78 and in private school in 1978-79. We also had explicit grammar in 1979-80, but did not use Warriner’s. Also, we were taught grammar in the first two years of Latin, 1978-80.

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