Ken Donelson, while the editor of English
Journal, obviously derided the teaching of grammar when he related
a conversation on a plane:
On Learning Those Pesky Parts
"(What do you wish you'd learned?)
Was it Franklin who said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?
As editor of English Journal, Donelson, of course, held a very influential
position. Unfortunately, his ignorance, arrogance, and simple lack of respect
for others' opinions ("bullshit"?) reflected a wide-spread attitude among
English teachers and especially among the members of NCTE. (See "Was
NCTE Prejudiced against the Teaching of Grammar?") The situation has
improved somewhat, but there is still strong antagonism, even among teachers
who like grammar and want to teach it, against careful study of the parts
of speech. Such antagonism is wrong -- and probably even harmful. It contributes
to sloppy thinking.
"Well, I couldn't tell you to this day what
a noun was. Or a verb. Any of that."
(He asked me so I told him -- a noun is the
name of a person, place, or thing. A verb shows action or a state of being.
Then I asked him if that helped.)
"Really?" (Then he repeated almost exactly
what I'd just said, and he did know them, those stupid, pointless, valueless
definitions, he really did.) "Yeah, maybe it does. I'll try to remember."
(I remember saying to myself, don't give me
"Editor's Page: A Sort of Dumb Thing Happened on My Way to San Francisco."
Journal, March 1983.
People like Donelson, who are strongly
opposed to the teaching of grammar, will never be convinced. Their brains
are simply turned off by the question. (Perhaps their heads are too full
of -- to use Donelson's own term -- "bullshit"?) The teachers who want
to teach grammar, but who are still antagonistic to the parts of speech,
present a more interesting question. From what I have gathered (from fifteen
years as editor of Syntax in the Schools), there are two distinct
origins for their antagonism. In a sense, it is a distinction between the
trenches and the towers. In the trenches, general English teachers attempt
to include grammar in their teaching of English; in the towers, specialists
in grammar do something else.
In general, English teachers are very poorly
prepared to teach grammar. They usually know that what they currently
teach does not work very well, but they do not know what else to teach,
or how to teach it. (This is the fault of our Education Programs and of
our colleges; it is NOT the fault of the teachers!) These teachers often
try to teach the parts of speech -- in third grade, in fifth grade, in
seventh grade, in tenth grade, in college, and in all the grades in between.
Their problem is that the students don't seem to learn them, and this leads
to frustration and eventually to antagonism. The students' failure to learn
is, as I suggest throughout this site, the result of the way grammar is
taught -- isolated bits of knowledge that are never (or at least rarely)
integrated. But this failure, in turn, is the result of our entirely inadequate
preparation of teachers. A few years ago, Syntax in the Schools
ran a series of articles on main and subordinate clauses -- is the main
idea in a sentence usually embedded in the main subject and verb?
I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised when a number of subscribers
told me that the series was, for them, incomprehensible because they cannot
identify clauses. And these were teachers who want to teach grammar and
even belong to ATEG.
Their situation reminded me of a state's educational
standards I reviewed years ago: subordinate conjunctions were to be learned
in fifth grade; subordinate clauses, in seventh. (Because I live in, and
often pick on, Pennsylvania, I want to note that these were not Pennsylvania
standards.) Such standards make absolutely no sense, but they are an excellent
example of what I described previously -- isolated bits of knowledge that
are never (or at least rarely) integrated. Subordinate conjunctions only
make sense as lead-ins to subordinate clauses -- to memorize the conjunctions
without understanding what they do is to make grammar meaningless. Most
English teachers, given their situation, are therefore understandably frustrated
-- and even antagonistic. But they can learn, and it is toward them that
most of my work is directed.
As for those in the towers, I respect them,
but I'm afraid that their case is hopeless. There are, of course, far fewer
people in the towers, and they are mainly professors who have devoted their
entire lives to studying grammar -- various kinds of grammar. In addition
to "traditional grammar," for example, there are "structural" grammars,
"transformational" grammars, "systemic" grammars, "tagmemic" grammars,
etc. etc. In many of these grammars, the traditional eight parts of speech
have been junked and replaced with different sets of categories. (I can't
remember which one, but one theory replaced the traditional eight parts
with twenty six.) It should be obvious, by now, why most members
of the towers are antagonistic toward the eight parts of speech.
Perhaps some day, some member(s) of the towers
will produce an effective pedagogical grammar, but thus far I haven't seen
one. [But then, I may have blinders too.] From what I have seen, however,
not only grammars, but also concepts and exceptions within grammars, multiply
like rabbits, but without rabbits' reasons. As a simple example, many of
the new grammars distinguish "determiners" ("the," "a," "an") from normal
adjectives. I can understand the theoretical reason for doing so -- within
some of the theories in which this is done. But practically -- pedagogically
-- speaking, what is the purpose? Some native speakers have trouble knowing
when to use "a" and when to use "an." Non-native speakers have trouble
with when to, and when not to, use these words. But will any of these speakers
be helped by the knowledge that these words are "determiners" and not "regular
adjectives"? What I have seen thus far from the towers is multiplication
of concepts, lack of agreement, and little exploration of why students
should learn what the towers profess. I almost see the members of the towers
as gourmet chefs, arguing about the best ingredients for a recipe, but
never cooking. Meanwhile, our students are starving. Is all this fancy
stuff necessary, or is there a simpler way to do it? As Louis M. Myers
| The idea that grammar is a logical system
has a tendency to make us concentrate on the "concepts" involved, and to
turn us away from the study of the actual phenomena of language. A great
deal of the material that appears in many texts leads only to the ability
to talk about the language according to a set of artificial conventions,
and has no value whatever is increasing our ability either to use or to
For instance, it is necessary to distinguish
between "direct" and "indirect objects" in Latin for the simple physical
reason that they take different forms. In English the distinction, however
fascinating, is completely useless. A four-year-old can make and understand
sentences like "He gave me a book"; and he won't be able to do either a
bit better for learning that me may be called an "indirect object"
and book a "direct object." We do not have separate dative and accusative
cases in English; and since the boy is not in the least likely to say "He
gave I a book" or "He gave a book me," no question of either form or position
is involved. If we force him to "distinguish between these constructions"
we are not teaching him anything about the use of language, but only about
an unnecessarily complicated linguistic theory.
It may be that all knowledge is good in itself,
and that the question "Good for what?" is impertinent. But only those who
choose to do so need learn about butterflies or old postage stamps; and
the one justification for the widespread belief that everybody should learn
something about grammar is the theory that a knowledge of it is directly
useful in communication. Considering the amounts of time, money, and effort
invested, we cannot afford to accept this theory in blind faith.
As a matter of fact, a good many of our educators
have stopped accepting it, and have announced that there is no discoverable
connection between training in "formal grammar" and ability to use English
But instead of recommending changes in our "formal
grammar," they have usually been satisfied that it should be abandoned
entirely. This is throwing out the baby with the bath. English is not so
different from all other subjects that a systematic study of it is worthless.
We need only make sure that the system is soundly organized on the basis
of the facts, and that we concentrate our attention on the choices we have
to make, not on things to say when there is no question of a choice.
--- from Louis M. Myers, "Language, Logic, and Grammar," as
reprinted in Thomas Clark Pollock, et. al. Explorations: Reading, Thinking,
Discussion, Writing. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1956, 112-113,
originally from American English, a Twentieth Century Grammar, Prentice-Hall,
What we need is a simple, "soundly organized" grammar that will enable
our students to perform a "systematic study" of whatever they read or write.
For this purpose, the eight parts of speech are completely adequate, if
Even many educators who like to teach grammar
miss that elegance. Why they do may be suggested by the widely read and
highly respected writer about science, Stephen Jay Gould (whose passage
motivated this essay). Gould writes:
| We often portray taxonomy as the dullest of
all fields, as expressed in a variety of deprecatory metaphors: hanging
garments on nature's coatrack; placing items into pigeonholes; or (in an
image properly resented by philatelists) sticking stamps into the album
of reality. All these images clip the wings of taxonomy and reduce the
science of classification to the dullest task of keeping things neat and
tidy. But these portrayals also reflect a cardinal
fallacy: the assumption of a fully objective nature "out there" and visible
in the same way to any unprejudiced observer .... If such a vision could
be sustained, I suppose that a taxonomy would become the most boring of
all sciences, for nature would then present a set of obvious pigeonholes,
and taxonomists would search for occupants and shove them in -- an enterprise
requiring diligence, perhaps, but not much creativity or imagination.
But classifications are not passive ordering
devices in a world objectively divided into obvious categories. Taxonomies
are human decisions imposed upon nature -- theories about the causes of
nature's order. The chronicle of historical changes in classification provides
our finest insight into conceptual revolutions in human thought. Objective
nature does exist, but we can converse with her only through the structure
of our taxonomic systems.
We may grant this general point, but still
hold that certain fundamental categories present so little ambiguity that
basic divisions must be invariant across time and culture. Not so -- not
for these, or for any subjects. Categories are human impositions upon nature
(though nature's factuality offers hints and suggestions in return). Consider,
as an example, the "obvious" division of humans into two sexes. [Gould
then goes into an interesting discussion of this question.]
|Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to
Darwin. New York: Harmony, 1996. 39.
Too many grammarians -- traditional and "modern" -- believe that grammatical
categories are "assumption[s] of a fully objective nature 'out there' and
visible in the same way to any unprejudiced observer" rather than "human
impositions upon nature." Some linguists, for example, have dismissed
the KISS definition of the basic sentence pattern (subject / verb / complement)
because they believe that "out there" sentences are not tri-partite, but
bi-partite (subject / predicate). When pressed for the reasons for their
belief, rather than pointing to and explaining actual sentences in real
texts, they will usually refer to the work of other grammarians.
But if categories are "human impositions upon
nature," then before turning to other grammarians for an answer, we need
to ask what reasons, in what contexts, did those grammarians have for establishing
and defining their categories. Our general failure to ask these questions
can often be seen in responses to grammatical questions asked on listservers
such as ATEG and NCTE-Talk. Far too often, listserver responses consist
of citations from grammar books -- end of response. That the responder
does not explore WHY the grammar book explained it that way again reflects
the "assumption of a fully objective nature 'out there' and visible in
the same way to any unprejudiced observer." Once we check the grammar books,
it appears, the answer is, as Gould notes, "obvious."
Far too often, we who teach grammar,
assume that the basic things are obvious. (But as Gould shows, they are
not.) Recently, for example, I asked the following question on the ATEG
|Do you consider "if" and "because" to be coordinating or subordinating
conjunctions? For example, consider the following two sentences:
He wanted to know if it rained.
He was late because he forgot.
Are they compound (two main clauses), or are they complex (a main clause
and a subordinate clause)?
Having always assumed that they are subordinating conjunctions (I'm
as guilty as anyone else.), I was surprised by the responses that I received.
The responses have been edited, and names have been omitted:
| Hmmm. My first response, was why do
the labels matter? But then, I considered the idea that subordinating
and coordinating conjunctions act differently. Although they might sound
a little odd, both are clearly sentences if you switch the order.
If it rained, he wanted to know.
Take the word 'and' or 'or', and they aren't sentences if you switch the
Because he forgot, he was late.
And he forgot, he was late.
How could you consider either of those correct? They would need to be connecting
a thought in a previous sentence. This is not a grammatically correct
use of these conjunctions, but as with many grammatically incorrect constructions,
this can be used as an effective device if you know what you're doing.
Or he forgot, he was late.
I would consider both "if" and "because" to
be subordinating conjunctions. Both of the sentence seem to be complex
sentences to me.
A colleague of mine ... has an article about
the use of
"because" in classroom discourse; as I recall, the idea was that, in
certain contexts, "because" did not function as a suborndinator. However,
in the sentences below, both "if" and "because" look like subordinators
"Because" is a subordinating conjunction,
but "if" can have two distinct roles:
(1) "If" is sometimes a subordinating conjunction, introducing an adverbial
We'll have a picnic if the
Like other adverbials, adverbial clauses can be moved to precede the
If the rain stops, we'll
have a picnic.
(2) "If" can also be a complementizer (complementizing conjunction),
introducing a complement clause:
I wonder if the rain will
Here the "if" clause acts as the direct object of the sentence.
"That" and "whether" are two other complementizers.
I also don't like sound of 'He wanted
to know if it rained' under the reading 'if it rained' is object of 'know',
not the condition under which he wanted to know something else.
I feel like I would use 'whether' or 'if it had rained or not' or
something. But these constructions are changing. Notably, the past
perfect is being lost.
I've always considered these to be subordinate
(and so I was taught) - i.e. "complex." They still look that way to me
I agree that "because" is one [subordinating],
but it is commonly used as a coordinating conjunction by my
students. For example:
1. He never should have gone, BECAUSE if he hadn't the
whole fiasco could have been avoided.
"When" is another example:
2. "He had stopped in my room to check his email, WHEN
I asked if I could question him on his opinions of medical marijuana."
This is my question: what do we say about "because" here? Is it being
used as a coordinating conjunction? Or is it a subordinating conjunction
that is being used in a nonrestrictive clause rather than a restrictive
one, hence the comma, as in the second sentence below?
3. We went for a swim BECAUSE it was hot.
One subordinating conjunction, while, has (according to Fowler) three functions:
one temporal, one concessive, and one contrastive. In
4. We won the battle, ALTHOUGH we lost the war.
5. Wait WHILE I run up stairs.
"while" is temporal; in
6. My brother lives in Manchester, WHILE my sister lives
in Glasgow. (Fowler, 4th ed.)
"while" is one of the others--both, really. We mark the difference
with the comma. So: are there two or more kinds of subordinating
conjunctions, as 5. and 6. suggest to me? Or is it rather that subordinating
conjunctions operate similarly in different kinds of clauses, as in 3.
4.? Or are there subordinating conjunctions that are sometimes
coordinating ones, as in 1. and 2.? Fowler, 2nd ed.., thinks so:
"'while' (or less commonly 'whilst') is a conjunction of the kind called
strong or subordinating, i.e. one that attaches a clause to a word or a
a weak or coordinating conjunction that joins two things of equal grammatical
value; it is comparable, that is, with 'if' and 'although', not with 'and'
and 'or'." Fowler outlines "the stages of degradation of 'while'
from a strong conjunction to a weak one." He gives the example, "White
outfought Richie in every round, and the latter bled profusely, while both
his eyes were nearly closed at the end." This sort of sentence
Fowler calls "the flabbier kind of journalese." (706)
What do we say about these?
Some further thoughts on the subject, if I may.
1. BASIC CONSIDERATIONS
Traditional grammar has a wordclass ('parts of speech') called 'conjunctions'.
This class has two subclasses, the 'subordinating conjunctions' and the
This suggests that subordination and coordination are similar
types of relationships. And that the words expressing these
relationships basically do the same thing in sentences. This is,
however, not quite true.
(a) Subordination and coordination
SUBORDINATING conjunctions become part of a new entity, which I call
'subclause'. 'Subclause' used in this way denotes a linguistic object,
not the relationship of subordination. Traditionally also the wh-sentences
in the following entity are called subordinate clauses: 'What you see /
is / what you get' - which have a completely different structure.
A subclause consists of two slots: the first slot is filled by
words like 'if, that, because, since, while,...', the second slot is
filled by a sentence (major or minor, finite or non-finite).
because / he didn't like her
while / running around in a circle
if / blue
COORDINATING conjunctions sort of stay outside the linguistic objects
they connect. The objects can be any type of building-block, i.e. sentences
or noun groups or words or
morphemes or paragraphs, and so on. When two or more objects are connected
in this way, the result can be called a 'chain', thus there are sentence
chains, morpheme chains, etc.
The connecting words are mainly these: 'and, or, but'.
Then they embraced AND [connects two sentences]
Parrado, Canessa AND [single words] Vizintin set off up the mountain.
There was no light from the moon OR [noun groups] the stars.
Subordinating conjunctions could be called 'subordinators', the coordinating
(c) The problem of 'when'
'When' I can't see as a subordinator, although traditionally it
is interpreted as one. 'When' is used like any other of the nine
'wh-pronouns'. While subordinators fill the first slot in a
subclause and are followed by a sentence (see above), wh-pronouns fill
a functional slot in the sentence, they are sentence parts (subject, object,
adverbial, part of prepositional phrases, etc).
'When' functions as adverbial (usually of time-point).
When a wh-pronoun functions as a sentence part or as a part of a sentence
part, it usually moves to the front of the sentence. But it still plays
its original functional role. A sentence which has a wh-pronoun at its
front, is a 'wh-sentence' (either as statement - mostly - or as question).
The wh-statement can then be used in a great variety of ways: as subject,
object, etc. When it has attributive function, we
usually call it 'defining relative clause'; if its function leans
towards being an appositive, we call it 'non-defining relative
clause'. We find wh-statements in cleft sentences. And in the
conclusion slot of paragraphs (especially which-sentences). And we
find them on their own, e.g. in headlines (How the horse came to the American
Examples with WHEN- and WHERE-SENTENCES - nobody would call 'where'
a subordinating conjunction, so why should 'when' be one?
As he followed he kept an eye on the path
and watched to see / WHEN to make his move.
I think I know / WHERE he is.
I'll be here / WHEN you need me.
Andrew shoved Alyssa under the table as part
of the steel
frame crashed down / WHERE she stood.
IN PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE
Why don't you read up [ on / WHERE we're going/
Our reservations staff will advise [ on /
WHEN this option is available / ].
The Guard looked out over a large room [ from
/ WHERE he stood / ].
So erm Yes. Oh I used to pay a year from when
you [ from / WHEN you first started paying / ]
ATTRIBUTES (RELATIVE CLAUSE)
Still, it was obvious that the moment / WHEN
the Sorcerer came back down / would be my best chance.
When you entered my portal, you were transported
to a place / WHERE creatures your people only dream about / truly exist.
2. FUNCTIONS OF SUBCLAUSES
When a subclause is embedded (not connected!) in another
sentence, the subclause fills some functional slot.
(a) Subclauses as sentence parts
Subclauses may fill a sentence slot like subject, object,
adverbial, etc. Then they are part of the sentence in which they fill
Boon could see / that the snake was very big.
to see / if they came to the top [if=whether]
He did not see Boon / because he was busy.
(b) Subclauses as parts of sentences parts
The entity in square brackets is an appositional structure with
the that-clause as one of the two appositives. (The whole thing is
a verbless sentence, in the sentence from which it can be thought to be
derived it would play the role of subject
Parrado walked back to Canessa, clutching the
bread in his hands, [ a tangible sign / that they finally had made contact
with the outside world/].
(c) Subclauses and textgrammar
Sentences are not the end of the grammatical ladder. Above
sentence grammar there comes text grammar. Many problems of traditional
grammar have to do with not recognizing that there are also grammatical
rules beyond the sentence.
There are a number of levels beyond the sentence level, a central one
is the paragraph level. Paragraphs have functional slots in the same way
that sentences have functional slots (subject, subject complement, etc.).
The basic paragraph type offers 4 slots:
In sentences some slots are (structurally) necessary (dependent on the
full verb, see the valence discussion some time ago), others are free,
e.g. time adverbials or manner adverbials can be added freely to the kernel
of a sentence when there is a communicative need.
Similarly, in paragraphs the topic and the conclusion slots are
necessary to make a paragraphs, the other two are free slots.
Back to subclause-containing structures. Intuitively we sometimes feel
that there is a difference between structures that contain, say, conditional
clauses (if-clauses) and structures that contain, say, that-clauses. To
solve the problem we sometimes think this might have to do with subordination
I rather think that all this is a problem of textgrammar. E.g. a
If we ration it, it should last us for 20 days.
might be interpreted as a (kernel) paragraph:
IF we ration it
CONCLUSION: it should last us for 20
Similarly, structures with so-that-clauses could perhaps be
interpreted in this way:
Canessa untied it and sent back the strap
CONLCUSION: SO THAT their clothes, sticks,
knapsacks and shoes could be thrown across in the same way.
Both subclause-structures cannot be interpreted as adverbials, there
is neither an adverbial of condition nor one of result.
As to because-sentences - they are often adverbials of reason, but when
there is comma before 'because', they, too, might be interpreted as kernel
Any comments on the above suggestions?
I apologize to my colleagues if I have misrepresented any of their responses
-- copying and pasting from listserver messages can lead to errors, especially
where quotation marks and italics are concerned. My primary point here
is the variety of responses received to something that I had not thought
was even a question. [I asked it because, in reading a book about language
development, I found the author assuming that "if" and "because" join main
The responses (presented in the
order in which they were received) range from an initial (and then revised)
reaction that labels do not matter, through some sharing of my assumption,
through some challenges of my assumption, and then to a highly labeled
explanation indeed. And these responses are to a simple(?) question as
to whether or not "if" and "because" belong in the category subordinate
conjunctions. It might be fun (or perhaps frustrating) to argue the answer
to that question here, but the more important question is -- Why is the
question itself -- and the answer(s) to it -- important?
I do not want to suggest
that any of the responses are not important, but echoing Myers, I want
to know important for what? The last (detailed) response, parts of which
I question, and parts of which I do not understand, may be very important
for some linguistic questions, but what could anyone do with it in our
classrooms -- classrooms where most students cannot even identify verbs?
Before I invested time and energy in attempting to understand these concepts
-- and the assumptions underneath them -- I want some evidence that all
these terms have a practical pedagogical application. As for the simpler
responses to the question -- "if" and "because" are or are not subordinate
conjunctions -- the difference of opinion has MAJOR pedagogical implications.
The two options lead to radically different definitions of "main clause,"
and (I hope there is some agreement here.) "main clause" is the fundamental
concept of the grammar that we are and should be teaching in our schools.
But I would suggest that, for the purposes
of the K-12 classroom, WE SHOULD ALL AGREE ON THE DEFINITION, and, UNOBVIOUSLY,
we don't. Imagine the confusion -- and frustration -- of students
who, in one classroom, are told that in "He was late because he forgot,"
"because he forgot" IS a subordinate clause, and, in another classroom
-- perhaps in the same school, they are told that it IS NOT. Such disagreement
is important at advanced levels of study. Not only does it demonstrate
Gould's proposal that "categories are human impositions upon nature," it
should also remind those of us in the towers that grammatical categories,
unlike the ten commandments, are not set in stone. We need to constantly
be ready to reevaluate our definitions -- and our reasons for making them.
In our K-12 classrooms, on the other hand,
our students need solid, not shifting, ground upon which to build a foundation.
Our linguists understand that there are different theories of grammar,
each offering different definitions of the same terms. But they should
also understand that attempting to get seventh graders to comprehend all
these differences -- or even bits and pieces from different theories --
only leads to the students' confusion. Our children are not stupid. Once
they master the conscious ability to analyze sentence structure, once they
can identify prepositional phrases, subjects, verbs, clauses (subordinate
and main), once they can use these concepts to understand and discuss how
sentence structure affects meaning and rhetorical effects, our students
will be able to join the club and be able to understand -- and maybe even
appreciate -- differences in grammatical definitions. Until then, however,
we are only confusing our students. I hope my colleagues will agree, and
not wish me in the position of Marat.