April 12, 2004

Grammar education: making up for a lost century

I see that Language Logger Geoff Pullum is giving a talk at Northwestern University on Friday 4/23/2004, under the title "What Happened to English Grammar?" I heard Geoff give a version of this talk last fall at Penn, and it's terrific. He's posted a few fragments of this material here in the past, and I hope we'll get a more complete version in future posts. Meanwhile, I've copied his abstract below -- and if you're in the Chicago area on April 23, go to Swift Hall, Room 107, at 3:30 p.m. and hear him.

Try to imagine biological education being in a state where students are taught that whales are fish because that is judged easier for them to grasp; where teachers disapprove of tomatoes and teach that they are poisonous (and evidence about their nutritional value is dismissed as irrelevant); where educated people accuse biologists of "lowering standards" if they don't go along with popular beliefs. This is a rough analog of where English grammar finds itself today. The state of relations between the subject as taught by the public and the subject as understood by specialists is nothing short of disastrous. The fact is that almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong. In part this is because of misconceptions concerning the facts. In part it is because hopeless descriptive classifications and antiquated theoretical assumptions doom all discussion to failure. Amazingly, almost nothing has changed in over a hundred years. The 20th century came and went without affecting the presentation of grammar in popular books or the teaching (what little there is of it) that goes on in schools. Today's grammar books differ in content only trivially from early 19th-century books. In this lecture I name and shame some of those on the long dishonor roll of myth-creators and fear-mongers (John Dryden, Henry Fowler, Ambrose Bierce, William Strunk, E. B. White, George Orwell, Louis Menand, Stanley Fish), and I sketch a view of what could and should be taught in a course on the grammar of Standard English in the 21st century.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 12, 2004 10:48 PM