Thinking about grammar in a new way

This post summarizes my notes and thoughts from reading Part 1, Teaching Grammar for Writing: Principles to Practice, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996).

How does Weaver define grammar? Grammar is structure. Grammar is structure that communicates meaning. “Basically, grammar means roughly the same thing as syntax, a more technical term for how — not what — words combine to make meaning. The grammar of a language just is.” (p. 1)

In introducing the idea of “grammar to enrich writing,” Weaver ties grammar to rhetoric, which she argues involves “engaging [an audience] deeply through the use of language and a distinctive style or voice” (p. 3). “Grammar, along with word choice, is a cornerstone of rhetoric.” If you have obtained a university degree in technical communication, you have most likely taken at least one class in rhetoric and can appreciate this connection that Weaver draws. Weaver describes Kolln’s concept of “rhetorical grammar” as “the use of particular grammatical options to create certain effects” (p. 4). She also cites Christensen (1965; 1967): “Grammar maps out the possible; rhetoric narrows the possible down to the desirable or effective” (p. 4).

In introducing the idea of “grammar to enhance writing,” Weaver argues that grammar is not about “right” or “wrong” (as per “mainstream English”) or “correcting errors,” but more about making grammatical choices that are “effective for particular purposes and audiences” (p. 4). She sees the editing process as enhancing writing by “editing for appropriate words and grammar” (p. 5). Yes, I agree: technical editing enhances technical writing, it doesn’t necessarily just correct it.

Weaver wants to be “teaching grammar as possibility” and grammar is “the offering of options rather than the avoidance of error” and that grammar ultimately “produces effective sentences and paragraphs” (p. 6).

The blog post that I read that convinced me to buy this book quoted the 12 guiding principles for teaching grammar to enrich and enhance writing (p. 7-8), but I am going to call out only two that spoke to me as a technical editor and how I should be “teaching” grammar to the writers that I support: [1] “Most of the grammatical terms used in traditional grammar books are not really needed to explain grammatical options and conventions” and [2] “Teachers do little good and often a great deal of harm by making numerous ‘corrections’ on students’ papers” (p. 7). I think I sell myself short as less of a copy editor because I don’t feel that I really know all these grammatical terms and do not coach or teach my writers about grammar through my editing comments. I might step a bit further away from that belief as I continue reading Weaver’s textbook.

As Weaver ventures into Chapter 2, she starts “expanding the basic definition of grammar” (which I thought she already did in Chapter 1). She talks of traditional grammars, such as “descriptive” and “prescriptive” and their alignment (or non-alignment) with conventions or rules, but quickly moves on to define “operational” grammar. [For a most excellent explanation and description of descriptive vs. prescriptive, read this Arrant Pedantry blog post, “Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies“.] “The grammar of a language is its structure, whereby communication is made possible….A language, any language, consists of elements and rules for combining them” (p. 10). These rules are operational rules, thus operational grammar, which we use automatically, and as we try to express the rules we move to descriptive grammar, which are developed by linguists, and she briefly ventures into transformational or generative linguistics or grammars, which was interesting, but off where I wanted to go (p. 10-13).

Three structural features of English that make our language work: word order, function words (words that glue content words together), and inflectional word endings. “Toddlers and preschoolers learn these aspects of grammar without any direct instruction.” (p. 10-11) I really wanted more here.

Weaver then discusses what’s wrong with how traditional grammars have been taught. Such as: “Traditional grammars define parts of speech in inconsistent and confusing ways, focusing too much attention on grammatical form and analyzing language, but not enough on employing grammatical structures that can convey precise descriptions and clarifying information.” (p. 15) Also: “Traditional grammar books for schools have focused on analyzing language and rooting out errors.” (p. 18) She takes a tour through history, discussing how grammar was thought to “train the mind” and that it was the “foundation of all knowledge” (p. 18). One of the pull quotes in this area was this: “We haven’t yet created a nation of writers, and the traditional focus on ‘errors’ is one of the major reasons” (p. 19).

Weaver concludes her second chapter by suggesting that “if students write well, it is mostly due to wide reading” and “the rich use of language in the home and classroom” (p. 23).

In kicking off Chapter 3, Weaver argues for the application of grammar not the teaching of grammar (p. 26). Most notably, for technical editors, she states “Most of the grammatical terms used in traditional grammar books are not really needed to explain grammatical options and conventions” (p. 27). Grammar is partly learned from “extensive, authentic reading” and is learned “in conjunction with “authentic writing” (p. 32).

Weaver actually encourages teachers to avoid the red-pen syndrome and over-marking corrections to writing. As I read this principle, it really made me pause and think about how heavy an editor that I am, and how I might adapt or change my editing style. In particular, she encourages developing “editing checklists” to have writers check, revise, and edit their own work for things. Weaver also recommends marking no more than one or two patterns of grammar, usage, or mechanics, so that writers must learn and fix things for themselves. (p. 37)

It is during the writer’s own editing process that they can best learn grammatical options (p. 38). Weaver talks about the editing process involving editing “according to the conventions widely accepted in mainstream society, while still honoring … home language or dialect” (p. 40), which led me to ponder whether technical communicators have their own language or dialect, which I do believe that they do! Weaver goes on to talk about Standard American English and Edited American English, which she notes is not even consistent in its conventions or the application of them (p. 42-44).

Weaver talks about how as writing improves, more errors occur, as students try out new grammatical constructs. Teachers must be accepting of these errors and note the improvement. She gives several suggestions for how to best teach grammatical skills, which includes providing lots of examples to give students patterns upon which to use them in their own writing (p. 48).

She concludes Chapter 3, and Part 3 for that matter, by reiterating her premise that grammar should not be taught in a stand-alone manner but instead “in the context of and in conjunction with writing” and that she sees grammar “as a resource for writers, necessarily tied to the writing process and inherently connected to issues of invention and drafting, revision and editing, proofreading and publication. We want to demistify grammar and empower novice writers not to fear grammar but to use it as another tool in their writing repertoire” (p. 52).

I’m finding Weaver’s book and thesis fascinating, and I look forward to later chapters and its greater application to the editing process. I hope that I can extrapolate and apply it to skilled or trained technical writers!

Happy editing everyone!

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2 Responses to Thinking about grammar in a new way

  1. Nick Wright says:

    I suspect from this review the thesis on grammar is too high-brow to be of practical use to most writers. The review needed to use examples to make the concepts understandable. I’ve been an editor for 20 years and I was left scratching my head.

    What am I supposed to make of this:

    The grammar of a language is its structure, whereby communication is made possible….A language, any language, consists of elements and rules for combining them” (p. 10). These rules are operational rules, thus operational grammar, which we use automatically, and as we try to express the rules we move to descriptive grammar, which are developed by linguists, and she briefly ventures into transformational or generative linguistics or grammars, which was interesting, but off where I wanted to go (p. 10-13).

    Confused.

    Nick Wright

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    • Michelle Corbin says:

      Do not fault the book, fault the blog post that was just my notes on reading the book. Also, please remember that this book was written for other middle school teachers who must teach grammar to a variety of students. I can crack open the book and try to clear up the confusion, if you really have a specific question you’d like cleared up?

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