May 31, 2004

Omit stupid grammar teaching

I talked recently with an undergraduate who told me something about her grammar instruction in the Los Angeles public schools. And in addition to the usual nonsense about not ending sentences with prepositions and never using "contractions" and things of that sort, she told me a new one. She was told that sentences like the one you are now reading are ungrammatical.

The alleged fault I'm alluding to here does not have to do with the fact that the main clause is passive, though I have often encountered absurd over-applications of the notion that passives must be avoided, so that would probably have been considered a second strike against it. No, the red sentence above has another feature that is supposed to be a grammatical sin. Sit awhile and try to figure out what, before you read on.

What my undergraduate student's high school English teacher insisted on was that you should look at any sentence containing the subordinator that and see whether omitting it would leave the sentence still grammatical. If so, then you must omit it, this teacher said. She would grade you down if you ever used that where grammar did not absolutely require it.

Think about that. The teacher is saying that these famous lines by Joyce Kilmer are ungrammatical:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree

She is saying the same about the first sentence of Wuthering Heights. And so on and so on. This is worse than bad English teaching. This is raving, blithering nonsense.

But I think I know where it comes from. I think it originates in an elevation of a stupid mantra to the status of a holy edict. The mantra is "Omit needless words," stated on page 23 of Strunk and White's poisonous little collection of bad grammatical advice, The Elements of Style, and elaborated on by E. B. White in the reminiscences of his introduction. It could be interpreted in a sensible way as a piece of advice for those editing their own writing: make sure you're not being too wordy (e.g., why say on a daily basis if you're trying to keep to a length limit and the phrase every day is shorter). But the teacher must have decided that the Strunkian imperative had to be obeyed literally and without question at all times, and that punishment must be meted out to those who do not obey. Fascist grammar.

If I have one ambition for my professional life, it is to do something to drive back the dark forces of grammatical fascism of this kind, to help get English language teaching back into a state where the things that are taught about the grammar of the language are broadly the things that are true, rather than ridiculous invented nonsense like that all words are forbidden except where they are required.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 31, 2004 02:44 PM