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Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

For readers of a certain age, grammar was an essential part of the English curriculum. I vividly remember learning about parts of speech in elementary school, and then moving on to diagramming sentences in middle school. I'm sure I was an outlier, but I liked seeing how words came together to form ideas. In fact, I still have Warriner's English Grammar and Composition (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1951).

I was reminded of my experience by an essay tracing the rise and fall of grammar instruction ("Grammarians in Hoodies," Education Next, Spring 2013). During the 70s, there was a push to make English class more "relevant." Feelings about literature became more important than analysis. In 1972, the Conference on College Composition said that students had a right "to their own patterns and varieties and language." I was taken aback when the National Council of Teachers of English in 1974 issued a statement that correcting language was "immoral" because it was an attempt by one social group to exert dominance over another.

Although I tried to hold the line against what I considered to be absurd when I taught English, it was a losing battle. English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student's essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I'm not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That's counterproductive. Instead, I'm talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

Companies complain that workers can't fashion a clear and coherent memo. That doesn't surprise me at all. Young people can't enunciate a declarative sentence without the words "like" or "you know." That assumes they even know what a declarative sentence is. So when it comes time to put their thoughts in writing, they're predictably at a complete loss. Texting, of course, only exacerbates their deficits.

I don't expect all students to be able to write a 1,000-word essay. But I don't think it's unreasonable to insist that they can at least write a clear 5-sentence memo devoid of grammatical and spelling errors. I'll exempt "whom," known as "America's least favorite pronoun" ("For Whom The Bell Tolls," The Atlantic, April). And I'll also exempt the apostrophe, which is constantly misused ("Britons want to know what possessed officials targeting apostrophes," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 28).

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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