A Year From The Use and Misuse of English Grammar

We learn grammar when we learn to speak, we know grammar, we pause where we want, when we want, pulling words like fish from our Pond of Vocabulary and stringing them on the line, one after another, one to a hook, using commas instead of periods when we don’t want to be interrupted, YELLing when someone is so rude as to keep on talking when we are trying to interrupt – we fall silent, dashed, a period of rigour-tunge follows (our tongues rigged with rules), then we bounce awake, trim our sails, for we’re surrounded in the Bay of Prescription, the murky waters of communication, with boats of advice all bopping this way and that (there goes the “Do This,” firing across the bow of the “Don’t Do That”), the pond stormy on a storm swept night if there ever was one.

In Wendell Johnson’s “You Can’t Write Writing,” (The Use and Misuse of Language, 1962, S. I. Hayakawa, ed.), we learn that bad grammar, baby, ain’t our problem: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, ‘Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?’ Mr. Darrow was contending…the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to’” (101).

This has implications for those who would aspire to teach writing, and Johnson continues, “The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing-about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature of the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts” (103).

Grammar is the least of our worries, argues Johnson: “So long as the student’s primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating…his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable but to be clear and coherent” (103).

Hayakawa, in his introduction, has already explained his interest with regard to how people talk: “We are not worrying about the elegance of their pronunciation or the correctness of their grammar. Basically we are concerned with the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii). And, ultimately, for the reader interested in more than mere prescriptions on how to write, emphasis is placed “not only on what the speakers said, but even more importantly on their attitudes towards their own utterances” (vii).

Hayakawa sums up his concerns as follows: “What general semanticists mean by ‘language habits’ is the entire complex of (1) how we talk – whether our language is specific or general, descriptive or inferential or judgmental; and (2) our attitudes toward our own remarks – whether dogmatic or open-minded, rigid or flexible” (vii).

Whenever I hear some self-appointed cop of language (or worse, someone with the badge of a degree), attempting to arrest a speaker’s tongue, putting it in the handcuffs of some prescriptive rule, I think about Hayakawa’s The Use and Misuse of Language.

But, unforlorn, I’m inclined toward and recline with an infuzen of John Cage, who sums the problem up nicely in his A Year From Monday (1969), which begins with “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965

        I.               Continue; I’ll discover where you

                            sweat  (Kierkegaard).            We are getting

rid of ownership, substituting use.

Beginning with ideas.            Which ones can we

take?            Which ones can we give?

Disappearance of power politics.            Non-



“You Can’t Write Writing”
Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major
How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How should introductory college writing be taught to today’s nonreaders? E. B. White said to “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” But the paragraph is made of sentences, so why not start with the sentence? Francis Christensen did, and his original Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers (1967), is today available as Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for Teachers (3rd Ed., 2007).  A preview of his “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” can be viewed here.

“The teacher of writing must be a judge of what is good and bad in writing,” Christensen said, but “from what sources do they say ‘Do this’ or Don’t do that?’”

Christensen used a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach based on his “…close inductive study of contemporary American prose.” In part, his work was a response to the “many English teachers [who] abide by the prescriptions of the textbooks they were brought up on. This preference is one that I cannot understand,” he said, “since it means taking the word of the amateurs who hack out textbooks that talk about language (fools like me) as against the practice of professionals who live by their skill in using language.”

Christensen’s inductive study resulted in his new method because he realized that, for example, there existed “…no textbook whose treatment of grammar and syntax could cope with more than a small fraction of its [Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man] sentences, but I would venture the claim that there is not a sentence whose syntactic secrets could not be opened by the key fashioned in the first two essays [of his Notes Toward…].”

Christiansen’s descriptive method recognized that grammar knowledge does not necessarily result in good writing. But Christiansen’s descriptive method does not ignore grammar. He said, “…the rhetorical analysis rests squarely on grammar,” but that “it should surprise no one that no experiments…show any correlation between knowledge of grammar and the ability to write. One should not expect a correlation where no relation has been established and made the ground for instruction.”

But neither should that be used, he goes on, to argue “that the only way to learn to write is to read literature [because] what is true over a lifetime is not true of the fifteen weeks of a semester. In practice, this position throws the burden of learning to write on the student. It expects him to divine the elements of style that make literature what it is and apply the relevant ones to writing expository essays about literature – a divination of which the teachers themselves are incapable. If reading literature were the royal road that this argument takes it to be, English teachers would be our best writers and PMLA would year by year take all the prizes for nonfiction.”

But why shouldn’t students be made to take on “the burden of learning to write”? And why does Christensen make the assumption that English teachers are so well-read? They have that reputation, but how much reading, in the midst of a full load and stacks of student papers to get through, are they able to get done “over a lifetime”? Consider, for example, this typical Christensen observation, made from his inductive study: “…our faith in the subordinate clause and the complex sentence is misplaced…we should concentrate instead on the sentence modifiers, or free modifiers.” But how do we know that without making the same inductive study he made? Indeed, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, in sum, while not at all ignoring grammar, recommends taking the inductive study into the classroom, reading literature to teach writing.

“Oh, teachers, are my lessons done? I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed, and said, ‘Well child,
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?’”

…from “Teachers,” by Leonard Cohen, 1967.


Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

Notes toward a New Rhetoric
Francis Christensen
College English
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 7-18
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/373827

Shakespeare of Main Street: How We Should Teach English

Evidence for the claim that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and the rest, is often cited reasoning that an uneducated farm-boy moved to the city lacks the formal education necessary to explain the depth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom found in the plays.

Though prowess with language is not necessarily a school learned skill, the rebuttal to the Shakespeare as author naysayers is found in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. For one thing, Shakespeare indeed was educated. Says Greenblatt, “…[Shakespeare] was sent to the Stratford free grammar school, whose central educational principle was total immersion in Latin.” Portland Public Schools should adopt the school’s method. The school day ran for twelve hours, six days a week, year round. “The curriculum made few concessions to the range of human interests: no English history or literature; no biology, chemistry, or physics; no economics or sociology; only a smattering of arithmetic.” What did they study, then? Latin. Latin was the sole subject, but from their Latin studies came everything else, including reading and performing ancient plays, providing the students with exposure to a world peopled with characters caught in life’s web, preparing students, no doubt, to navigate that web skillfully and purposefully. “And,” says Gleenblatt, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up with the threat of violence.” Sounds like the Catholic high school I went to; well, the threat of violence part, anyway.

So Shakespeare was educated, but still steeped in folk culture. He chose not to write in Latin, but in the language of his home, countryside, and city – the vernacular of his time. In any case, Shakespeare does not appear in his plays. Greenblatt explains that “virtually all of [Shakespeare’s] close relatives were farmers…he seems to have taken in everything about this rustic world, and he did not subsequently seek to repudiate it or pass himself off as something other than what he was.” If there are snobs in a Shakespeare audience, they don’t know what they are hearing.

And, as it turns out, what they are hearing is akin to what they will hear today if they open their ears to the speech of Main Street, as is evidenced by new research and a new play being performed at the University of Kansas in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare, a pronunciation that we might recognize as coming from someone in our own family.

How should we teach English? By immersing our students, as Shakespeare was immersed, but not in Latin, in English, in English literature.