October 24, 2006

Form, function and content

Over the past half century, our culture has moved about as far as it's possible to go in valuing content over form, and practice over analysis. At least, that's what you'd have to conclude from the way we teach reading, writing and speaking, both in English and in foreign languages. The fact that "grammar school" is now mostly grammarless is a symbol of this larger trend. And there's been a comparable long-term shift in the research and teaching that goes on in university departments of language and literature where (for example) it's not now expected that a specialist in poetry ought to be able to scan metered verse, or to analyze the phonological, syntactic or semantic structures of any sort of poetry at all.

Recently, I've seen a few signs that the cultural pendulum might have started to swing back towards the center. The most recent one was a story in yesterday's Washington Post (Daniel de Vise, "Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback", 10/23/2006), which features a teacher known as "Grammar Greiner":

Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

Of course, "grammar" for the purposes of this article seems to consist mostly of spelling, punctuation and the "correct" use of pronominal case in phrases like "it is I". But maybe that's just the reporter's take on the situation; and for a teacher to ask students to engage in any sort of analysis of any sort of linguistic form may be taken as a sign and a portent.

Another recent straw in the wind: Stanley Fish, who says provocative things like "meaning is always the enemy of writing instruction". Here's a characteristic sample, from his NYT blog, which is hidden behind the Times Select wall and thus not as widely read as it might be ("The writing lesson", 5/4/2006):

The focus of writing instruction should be form, and only form. The moment an idea or piece of content is allowed to take center stage (except as an illustration of an abstract formal operation) is the moment when the game is lost. Some readers of that Op-Ed piece were properly skeptical and feared that I was urging a series of arid exercises that could not possibly engage the interest of any student. I have not found this to be true. There is nothing arid about this way of teaching writing, although I acknowledge once again that the question of whether or not it actually does teach writing remains open. It should be noted that none of the more substantive, content-based approaches to the task seem to teach writing at all. We’ve now had decades of composition courses in which students exchange banal opinions about the hot-button issues of the day, and student writing has only gotten worse. Doesn’t it make sense to think that if you are trying to teach them how to use linguistic forms, linguistic forms are what you should be teaching?

There's a discussion of the cited op-ed piece, with a link to a durable copy of it, in an earlier Language Log post ("Blinded by content", 6/4/2005). However, Prof. Fish's writing lesson makes it clear that when he says "form", he actually means "function":

This week I spent a happy Tuesday afternoon doing one of the things I most like to do. I was teaching — or trying to teach— a student how to write. Success in this area comes hard. The occasion for the lesson was a final paper that displayed a range of organizational and grammatical problems. I always begin on the level of sentences, but early on, it became clear that this student, who had turned 31 the day before, didn’t have a firm grasp on what a sentence is. I gave him my standard mantra — a sentence is a structure of logical relationships — but that didn’t help. What did help — and usually helps, I find — is a return to basics so basic that it is almost an insult.

I asked him to write a simple three-word English sentence. He replied immediately: “Jane baked cookies.” Give me a few more with the same structure, I said. He readily complied but one of his examples was, “Tim drinks excessively.” The next 40 minutes were spent getting him to see why this sentence was not like the others (a kind of “Sesame Street” exercise), but he couldn’t do that until he was able to see and describe the structure of sentences like, “Jane baked cookies.”

I pointed to “baked” and asked him what function the word played. He first tried to tell me what the word meant. No, I said, the word’s meaning is not relevant to an understanding of its function (meaning is always the enemy of writing instruction); I want to know what the word does, what role it plays in the structure that makes the sentence a sentence and not just a list of words. He fumbled about for a while and finally said that “baked” named the action in the sentence. Right, I replied, now tell me what comes along with an action. Someone performing it, he answered. And in the sentence, who or what is performing the action? “Jane,” he said happily. Great! Now tell me what function the word “cookies” plays. Progress immediately stalled.

For a long time he just couldn’t get it. He said something like, “ ‘Cookies’ tells what the sentence is about.” No, I said, that’s content and we’re not interested in content here (content is always the enemy of writing instruction); what I want to know is what structural relationship links “cookies” to the other parts of the sentence. More confusion. I tried another tack. What information does “cookies” provide? What question, posed implicitly by another of the sentence’s components, does it answer? It took a while, but that worked. It answers the question, “What was baked?” he offered. Yes, I said, you’ve almost got it. Now explain in abstract terms that would be descriptive of any sentence with this structure, no matter what its content or meaning, the structural logic that links a word like “baked,” a word that names an action, to a word like “cookies.” More fumbling, but then he said “cookies” is what is acted upon. By God, he got it! It was only then that I told him that in the traditional terminology of grammar, the thing acted upon is called the object. Had I given him the term earlier, he would have nodded, but he wouldn’t have understood a thing. Now, he had at least the beginning of an understanding of how sentences are constructed and what work a sentence does; it organizes relationships between actors, actions and things acted upon.

Since it's midterm time for us academics, I'll phrase my comments in the form of questions for the reader:

1. What problems will arise if you succeed in persuading students that "a sentence ... organizes relationships between actors, actions and things acted on"? (Hint: pick one of Prof. Fish's own phrases -- say the first one, "This week I spent a happy Tuesday afternoon doing one of the things I most like to do" -- and try to figure out who is performing which actions on which objects.)

2. Where might students (or professors) go to learn more about the systematic relationships among linguistic form, function and content? (Hint: it's not in law school, nor is it in a course in English literature.)

3. What questions about disciplinary trends and educational practices, suggested by his argument, does Professor Fish fail to ask? Why?

[Some background reading:

"The plastic fetters of grammar" (10/21/2003)
"Grammar education: Making up for a lost century" (4/12/2004)
"Two out of three on passives" (5/8/2004)


[And if you wonder whether contemporary intellectuals are really confused about grammatical concepts and grammatical terminology, search the comments on this recent post by Ann Althouse for phrases like "passive case" and "subjunctive voice", and try to figure out who's joking and who isn't.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 24, 2006 09:10 AM