Students don’t have to diagram sentences to learn grammar. They have to write. Anyone old enough to remember diagraming a sentence--which includes nearly every school teacher, politician, and education pundit--has bittersweet memories of run-ins with old lady Grammar. Deep in our collective psyche, we know her as the stone-cold heart of school. One of the joys of being a grownup is not having to study grammar, and one of the obligations of being a kid (or so the myth goes) is to shut up and take your grammar because it’s good for you.
When Mrs. S. showed me how to diagram sentences in the 6th grade, Dennis, who sat on my left, used a yellow ruler to draw his lines precisely. Not so patient, I scrawled hasty ledgers across the blue-lined notebook paper in a tick-tack-toe design. Despite my poor penmanship, something about dissecting the sentences appealed to me. I became adept at plucking out the still-beating heart of subject and verb, while ruthlessly relegating prepositional phrases and stray adjectives to their slanted fates.
Grammar was also something I learned at the dinner table. My parents were vigilant about the correct pronunciation of “for” and “going to"; verbal slouching was discouraged as strongly as elbows on the table. I still remember the knot in my stomach as I handed my father the umpteenth draft of a college application essay. Reading glasses perched low on his nose, he peered at my work while my own gaze was drawn to the window. His interrogation centered on antecedents and the purple in my prose, while I mulled over the suddenly attractive prospect of the leaf-raking I had shunned most of autumn.
Today, a dozen autumns later, I find myself on the other end of the red pen as a public high school English teacher. Teaching in the same diverse but affluent county where I learned my own grade school grammar, I’ve not fallen far from the tree. Out of nostalgia as much as for educational reasons, I recently asked one of the best writers in my class if he could diagram a sentence. He told me that he knew the parts of speech (“sort of”), but that was about it. “We never did grammar,” he explained. Yet he wrote this on a college application essay:
The 10-foot, 800-pound alligator roared, it’s rows of razor-sharp teeth reflecting in the dark water. Suddenly, as if it had slipped into stealth mode, the monster disappeared. At the very moment that the beast’s head was swallowed up by the murky water, all fear left my body. This strange, supernatural release of fright was imperative. Had it not occurred, the result would have been a horrifying death.
Two things stand out in this paragraph: Justin’s prose is gripping, and he added an apostrophe that doesn’t belong to “its” in the first line. Which of these you noticed first or care more about might well reveal your view of contemporary education--that schools are working and kids learning, or that schools are failing and turning out kids who don’t know the basics. But it’s not that easy.
The reality is that vivid writing and less-than-perfect grammar are both part of education in the ‘90s.
Grammar today is taught as a part of writing rather than prescriptively from a grammar book as it was in years past. Justin has in fact become well acquainted with grammar over the course of his 12 years in the public schools. But he doesn’t realize that because he’s never actually studied it, and there’s the rub. Having learned through writing-based instruction rather than diagraming, Justin is under the impression that he doesn’t know grammar. This notion is widely subscribed to and reinforced by critics who see Justin’s inability to diagram a sentence as an indictment of public education, symptomatic of what they perceive as today’s education crisis.
Grammar, it must be noted, is in the eye of the beholder. To linguists, grammar is a system of rules that describes, rather than limits, language behaviors. To school critics, it is the diagraming Justin can’t do. To English teachers, it is a component of language study that labels words and structures; it goes along with usage (speaking and writing skills) and mechanics (capitalization and punctuation).
But in politics, grammar is a defining issue. Consider the furor over the proposal to teach Ebonics in Oakland, California. Today, it seems, the movement for vouchers and charter schools may rise or fall based on the parsing of the word.
In my classroom, I dispense doses of grammar according to the writer and the task at hand. My students span the spectrum of academic ability, but in every case their grammar study is woven into writing and reading tasks. At times, they learn through direct instruction. Mostly, though, the kids learn grammar by editing and proofreading. Seeing Justin’s essay and its offending apostrophe, I need to remind him of the reasons for using the punctuation, which are to shorten words and to show the possessive--except in the case of its and it’s, when you only use the apostrophe for the contraction rather than the possessive. Because . . . well, because that’s grammar.
Newly implemented performance standards in my state may force me and other teachers to tinker with our holistic approach to grammar, but I don’t think the tests will fundamentally alter the writing-first philosophy. These grammar-rich exams demand a command of the basics with a spate of multiple choice “fix this sentence” problems. But they also ask students to write from a prompt with style and correctness. It remains to be seen whether standards-based tests across the nation will cause the pendulum to swing back toward a more traditional approach, but already they have sparked new interest in an old subject at department meetings and district inservice sessions.
At the end of the day, does it matter if students can’t diagram? Frankly, no. Though grammar remains an integral part of the teaching--and testing--of English in our schools, what’s most important is writing. There are few careers (other than mine) where one gets paid to label the parts of a sentence. But there are many jobs where a person needs to communicate clearly and write effectively. It’s true that we don’t teach grammar the way we did in the good old days; we also teach writing differently, thank goodness. Once upon a time, kids in school grappled with grammar. Today, they wrestle with writing--and occasionally alligators.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Parse This!