Section 2: And Writing: The Place of Grammar

Analyzing Grammar in Context situates grammar within the writing process and promotes grammar from a rhetorical perspective.

These are important considerations because for too long people have mischaracterized grammar as rigid and prescriptive, something mysterious (possibly magical), and that a knowledge of “grammar” somehow transcends all other language considerations, especially in writing and writing instruction. Grammar has a place in writing and writing instruction, but grammar is NOT writing and writing instruction.

There are many who would like to believe that grammar is a single, unchanging entity: that the grammar of American English is the same as it has always been and will be the same on into the future. But language is a messy business, constantly in flux, constantly changing for good and for ill. But, because most of us want stability in our language, this messiness leads some to mystify "grammar": something we believe but cannot articulate, something to apply based on a "gut feeling," something we leave to the experts and the pedants.

Analyzing Grammar in Context attempts to demystify grammar for everyone.

Many of us learned our first grammar lessons at home, informal as most of them probably were: “Don’t say ain’t!” “Don’t use contractions!” But these lessons were too often inconsistent both in delivery and in usage.

Our next exposure to grammar came in elementary school: formal, acontextual forays doing battle with worksheets and deciphering the red-inked code of the teacher-expert scratched across our (often first-draft) writing assignments. As we moved into junior and senior high school, the mystery of grammar became deeper and more complex, especially as our own language use became more informal and much different from those of our parents' generation. The answers to all of our grammar questions always seemed to be just out of our grasp, even though the teacher (that shaman) seemingly had the answers we so desperately desired hidden within that red pen. And grammar became the most important consideration in our writing lives because grammar seemed to always be the focus of comments on our writing. But once again, these lessons were too often inconsistent both in delivery and in usage.

As the authors of this textbook, we believe that the basis of this mystery occurs, unfortunately, because over the years too many of our English teachers at the primary and secondary level have had too little training in writing instruction and too little training in grammar instruction. But they were still expected to be the expert in the classroom, and this expertise was delivered with a certainty borne from position rather than understanding. 

To complicate matters further for the English teacher, responding to student writing is a complex enterprise. Responding to one student paper is hard work. When you multiply that times 150 papers, day in and day out, teachers have always looked to simplify their lives. Thus responding to student writing became dependent on the mystery of grammar because grammar, inexplicably, made the teacher’s response to writing easier, and seemingly more concrete:

  • Dangling modifier = -3 points
  • Comma splice = -2 points
  • Misspelled word = -1 point

In other words, grammar appears objective; grammar appears explicit; grammar makes the response to writing quanitative and scientific. A writing teacher can find as many grammar and punctuation errors as necessary, assign a numerical value to each, and give the paper a score. Unfortunately, this allowed teachers to avoid the messy, time-consuming, difficult (and subjective) scoring that comes with responding to higher-order issues in writing. Therefore, in this way, grammar has become synonymous with writing for far too many people across the country.

This leads to the misrepresentations of grammar: grammar is writing; learning grammar makes you a better writer; grammar is a magic doorway to writing success. For these false claims (and others), grammar has been exalted among the practices of writing, placed on high without evidence or reason. In order to address these false claims, Analyzing Grammar in Context would like to begin with some assumptions about writing and writing instruction.

As you can read in Writing as Cognitive Process and Social Practice, writing is developmental and recursive. This process is most often characterized as a series of discrete steps: invention, planning, drafting, revising, and editing. 

Writing Process

While we won't go into the detail here about why these steps are not necessarily discrete and why this process is rarely linear, we will point out that there is only one place for grammar and punctuation in this model: the editing stage. All the other stages are more concerned with higher-order thinking and getting words on the page. All the other stages are, for the most part, internal. The editing stage, however, is the last stage before publication or submission, the last stage before the document is formally shared with an audience. While we might use grammar to a lesser extent at the other stages (as normal language use for writing), our text does not need to be grammatically correct until we submit it to readers for their review and evaluation.

We don’t use grammar to come up with ideas for writing, nor do we use grammar to plan and organize our document. Grammar plays a minor role when we draft because our text needs to be understandable even to ourselves, but we don’t need grammatically correct sentences to write a first draft. Similarly, the revision stage should focus on higher-order concerns, such as thesis or focus, audience, purpose, organization, and development. While grammar can play a stylistic role as we re-see our text, even this is late-stage revision serves primarily to add complexity to our delivery and to the development of our ideas.

In other words, learning grammar can help you understand the depth of language and its inherent complexity, and learning grammar will help you punctuate your sentences more effectively, but good punctuation does not mean good writing, or that your writing is clear or well-constructed.

As social practice, writing is the complex interactions of writer, reader, text, and context. Once again, grammar has a place in each of these interactions, but grammar should by no means be the primary consideration in your thinking. As a writer, you may have a heightened awareness of language use and correctness if you are writing for a particular reader who might be hyperconscious of grammar, like an English teacher or a hyper-correcter. You might be more conscious of grammar and punctuation if the text needs to be especially clear, like a set of life-saving instructions or a contract. Grammar may have a more prominent place in a particular context, like your job application materials or a formal essay in a grammar class. The point is that grammar should play a role in your thinking, but grammar is only one consideration among many for a writer, and while it may be an important consideration, it should never be the primary consideration.

Finally, we might make this same argument for the place of grammar in writing instruction, as well. We agree with Glenn Blalock that individuals learn to write most effectively in an environment where certain conditions are present:

  • Assignments must have meaning to the students, including the use of real audiences and purposes
  • Student writers must have formal and informal opportunities in the classroom to draft and revise
  • Student writers must receive comments while they are writing, not as an end result
  • Student writers must have opportunities to receive feedback at all stages of the writing process
  • Student writers must make numerous choices about their writing, including topic, context, audience, purpose, text, organization, support, style, tone, and lower-order concerns

These are the important conditions necessary for a successful writing assignment and successful writing instruction, and in this set of conditions, grammar makes an appearance only in the last bullet. Students need to make choices about lower-order concerns, such as sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice. And this is the proper place for grammar in writing instruction.

In conclusion, Analyzing Grammar in Context will make you more aware of the complexity of language and your grammatical choices amidst that complexity. Analyzing Grammar in Context will help you understand how to punctuate correctly (what the choices are and why one choice is more correct than another). But it will not, alone, make you a better writer. Analyzing Grammar in Context will help you understand principles for teaching grammar at all grade levels. But it will not make you a writing teacher. To be a better writer, or writing teacher, you need to understand, both practically and theoretically, a wide range of writerly skills that go far beyond mere grammar.