Should we be teaching grammar rules to native speakers?

Here are some thoughts, excerpted from one of my vanished Out in Left Field posts, on K12 writing instruction, which I’ve been thinking about once again.

What seems to predominate in K12 is neither:

  • useful, explicit grammar instruction that facilitates the understanding of style rules (dangling modifiers, parallel structures), foreign language grammar, and complex sentences in English


  • opportunities for implicit learning that come from expert feedback on multiple drafts.

In terms of writing, the results of this are evident in student papers, in written instructions, in promotional materials, and even in published articles and their associated headlines.

What keeps most of us complacent about this are two phenomena

1. to some extent, it’s mostly the good writers who recognize bad writing for what it is (keeping the general malaise about the state of writing in this country in equilibrium)

2. there will always be a decent number of decent, self-taught writers: people who read enough high-quality prose to pick up the conventions; people who write intuitively by ear.

It occurs to me that, besides the false choice between part-of-speech drills and peer editing, there’s a second fallacy afoot. People forgot that, when it comes to native speakers, only certain aspects of grammar need to be taught. No native English speaker needs to be taught how to conjugate English verbs or form the comparatives and superlatives of English adjectives—and yet, I’ve seen this happen.

Self-taught writers aside, what English speakers need to be taught isn’t the syntax of their native language, but how to make active use of that syntax: call it “applied syntax.” One example of applied syntax is identifying and fixing dangling modifiers and un-parallel structures. Another is deploying options like active vs. passive voice (“I was astounded by his tone”), clefting (“what particularly astounded me was his tone”), and inversion (“particularly astounding to me was his tone”) to control emphasis and flow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s