The War Against Grammar

war against grammar

I have taught classics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973. During these years, I have noticed a decline in the verbal skills of my students.


It is embodied in the difficulties that they have in reading comprehension and English composition, as well as in the fact that few are capable of studying a foreign language successfully.

The cause of the decline has never seemed mysterious to me. My students generally lack an understanding of basic grammatical concepts. Put most simply, they cannot classify words by part of speech. Most can identify prototypical examples of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, but beyond that they are in the dark.

Until 1996 I did not suspect that anyone questioned the value of knowing the parts of speech. But in 1996, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction was drafting a new set of academic standards for the state’s public schools and invited suggestions from the general public. At a public hearing I recommended that high school seniors be required to identify the eight parts of speech in a selection of normal prose, expecting that such a modest and reasonable suggestion would be immediately embraced by all concerned. I followed this recommendation with a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal.

To my surprise, I found myself embroiled in a controversy. I discovered that my suggestion ran directly counter to conventional wisdom among experts in K-12 education.

As I went on to discover, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the nation’s leading professional group of English teachers—the equivalent of the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association—opposed formal instruction in grammar. That the professional association of English teacher should issue a warning against the rigorous teaching of English grammar struck me as both ironic and symptomatic of a serious problem.

 The Decline in Language Skills

The clearest evidence of the problems that ensue in language arts when schools abandon formal instruction in grammar may lie in the well-known decline in the nation’s SAT scores. Both verbal and quantitative scores began to sink in 1963, the year of the NCTE “Braddock report,” which purports to have found that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or … even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”

The average verbal score dropped over 50 points, from 478 in 1963 to the 420s in the seventies. The quantitative score fell from 502 to 466 in 1980. Subsequently, quantitative scores rebounded somewhat, but verbal scores stayed in the 420s. In 1996 the College Board “recentered” the SAT scores.

The average verbal score for that year, 428, was reported as 505. In 2002 the “recentered” verbal score was 504.

Another stark indicator of a problem is a decline in the percentage of students studying foreign language on the college level. In 1965, 16.5 percent of college credits were earned in foreign language courses. This figure fell to 7.8 percent in 1977 and has fluctuated between 7.3 and 8.2 since then.

Language teachers have gone to great lengths to attract and keep students, transforming their profession in the process.  Emphasis on grammar in elementary language instruction is now passé. It has been replaced by various pedagogical innovations, especially the study of culture. The theory that the study of culture is a better way to learn a language is sometimes carried to foolish extremes.

I eventually withdrew my son from public school in favor of homeschooling.  The last straw for me was a project in his soi-disant French class. He was required to prepare a dessert made out of mangoes and powdered sugar, supposedly a favorite in Francophone Africa. At this point, he had not learned anything about the conjugation of French verbs.

This emphasis on culture at the expense of grammar in foreign language classes is partly designed to revive dwindling enrollments, but has yet to produce any dramatic improvement. My hypothesis is that the problem lies not in the way that languages were or are taught in college, but in the fact that fewer students are given the foundation in grammar in grade school that is necessary to succeed in the later study of a foreign language, however it is taught.

The fact that teachers have seen instruction in grammar as a problematic element in the curriculum lends credence to this hypothesis. Apparently, their students tend to lose interest when discussion turns to conjugating verbs, so they break out the mangoes and powdered sugar.

Grammar As a Liberal Art

Grammar entered education in the West as the first and most important of the seven liberal arts. In Plato’s Academy, students could not master philosophy unless they had first completed a basic curriculum, called enkuklios paideia (“rounded education,” whence the term, “encyclopedia”). The subjects covered were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmony (music), and astronomy.

The Romans imitated this curriculum, referring to the subjects studied as the artes liberales, “the liberal arts.” This curriculum was preserved and practiced on into the Middle Ages, thanks in part to the continued popularity of books like Martianus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, an allegorical treatment of the liberal arts. The liberal arts were divided between the language arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the mathematical disciplines of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

The entire intellectual realm is accessible to the person who has mastered these fields.

The liberal arts are the ground rules of thought, not its end. In Aristotelian terms, they are not speculative disciplines, aimed at learning ultimate truths, but practical ones designed to serve ulterior purposes. The value of the liberal arts, in other words, is instrumental—but no less necessary for being so.

Stobaeus, a 5th century writer, told of Crantor, a prominent member of Plato’s Academy, who said that “no one could be initiated into the Greater Mysteries before the Lesser Mysteries nor attain philosophy without laboring in the “rounded studies.” This is a point made emphatically by the fourth-century B. C. Greek orator Isocrates. The liberal arts, he says, do not by themselves make students better speakers or counselors, just eumathesteroi: “better learners.”

We should not be learning (non discere debemus) the liberal arts, says Isocrates: we should have learned (didicisse) them.

Grammar As an Essential Taxonomy

No matter how well attuned you may be to the secret harmonies of nature, you will not get very far as a naturalist without knowing the difference between birds and insects. The understanding of complex phenomena begins with taxonomy. Language’s basic taxonomic groups are referred to as “parts of speech.”

The individual responsible for first dividing words into eight taxonomic groups is known to posterity as Dionysius Thrax (“The Thracian”), whose book Techne Grammatike is among the most influential books ever written. It was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world and became the standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by the Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians, and through figures such as the Romans Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages. This basic taxonomy of language became the first step in a liberal arts education.

The Humanist Revival of Grammar

During the Middle Ages, logic became dominant in the schools, displacing much of the emphasis on the systematic study of grammar. But through the later influence of men such as Francesco Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla, instruction in grammar was revived. In due course, new humanist Latin grammars modeled on Donatus and Priscian appeared throughout Europe.

Desiderius Erasmus, who believed that young students needed to be trained in elementary grammar in the tradition of Dionysius and Donatus visited England early in the reign of King Henry VIII, spreading the gospel of humanism in elite circles. His friend John Colet reestablished London’s leading cathedral school, St. Paul’s School. St. Paul’s became the first of the Renaissance grammar schools in England. Like Chartes under Bernard, it focused on the study of classical literature based on a firm foundation of grammar.

William Lily was the first high master of St. Paul’s. In the 1540s, Lily’s treatise on the parts of speech was combined with a work on morphology by Colet and published with a decree by Henry VIII prescribing its exclusive use in all British schools—“one brief, plain, and uniform grammar,” according to a letter to the reader in the 1544 version.

Lily’s grammar is a straightforward exposition of Latin morphology and syntax based on the eight parts of speech. Students were required to memorize Latin’s complicated system of inflectional endings by reciting paradigms. As in other humanistic grammars, all the features of Latin were explained by giving their English equivalents. Thus students were exposed to the fact that sentences in English also had subjects consisting of nouns and pronouns and that English verbs also had different forms expressing various tenses, moods, and voices. They learned about main clauses and main verbs.

The promulgation of “one brief, plain, uniform grammar” in British schools occurred on the eve of the English literary Renaissance. From Chaucer’s death in 1400 to the mid-sixteenth century, England did not produce any literary artists of lasting fame. Then the students who had been raised on Lily’s grammar started coming of age: Edmund Spenser (1552-99), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), John Ford (1568-1639), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), and, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Ben Jonson famously wrote that Shakespeare had “small Latin, less Greek.”  In fact, Shakespeare’s education consisted of a grounding in Lily’s grammar followed by the reading of classical Latin authors and, if he stayed in school long enough, a smattering of Greek. Chronological considerations and references in his works have left scholars certain that he attended a grammar school shaped by the Erasmian reforms.

According to Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare “had Latin enough to grammaticize his English.” Though it comes to the same thing, I would prefer to say that he had grammar enough to “grammaticize” his English. Understanding Latin has no bearing per se on one’s ability to write English, but the grammatical foundation on which Latin study is based in the humanist approach is directly relevant. The grammatical concepts are the transportable elements, and they are what even students with “small Latin” acquire.


Grammar’s Legitimate Role in the Curriculum

It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred. This happened under the banner of “progressive education,” a pervasive movement in American education responsible for many things, both good and bad. Its bad effects resulted from carrying reactions against the liberal arts tradition to unjustified extremes. The elimination of formal instruction in grammar from the grade school curriculum is an example of such an extreme.

Because of the great increase in the number of students going to high school after the turn of the twentieth century, educators began to argue that students should receive training in specific vocations and for other practical challenges that they would face as adults in a non-academic world.

But besides introducing practical subjects into the curriculum, progressive educators have always taken a dim view, methodologically, of “formalism” in teaching. Formalism trades in rules and definitions that are specified ahead of time and is based on the assumption that, for any question, there is one correct answer, which the teacher knows and the student must be trained to produce.</>

As rudimentary, practical subjects, the liberal arts have a natural affinity for formal modes of instruction. This is especially true of grammar. The point is not to reflect on the interesting behavior of words, but to learn basic rules and definitions—and to move on. As a prototypical, formal topic in the early years of education and the first of the liberal arts, grammar was inevitably targeted for elimination by radical progressives.

But there is something to be said for hard-nosed, formal instruction—for rote learning. Knowing specified rules and definitions gives students autonomy. When they are right, they are right. They do not have to rely on the teacher’s subjective approval. And this is particularly important for younger students.Spring1Arranged.indd

That grammar is most easily learned by the young was a familiar truth during the English Renaissance. According to the 1673 edition of Lily’s Grammar:

Grammar, as she is a severe mistress, is also a coy one and hardly admits of any courtship but of the youthful votary. There are indeed many who by great industry have redeemed the want of early institution but in the performances of such there still appears somewhat of stiffness and force and what has more in it of art than nature.

I have devoted entire semesters to trying to teach the parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and the conjugation of English verbs to groups of college freshmen. At the end, the only students who had any facility in identifying the parts of speech were the few who entered the course already understanding them fairly well. The others displayed an inability to master the subject and had all the appearances of a hostile determination not to. It was like trying to teach table manners to a motorcycle gang.

If the progressives are right in their opposition to formal instruction in grammar, then 2,000 years of Western education have been a charade. When I questioned her on this topic, a friend of mine who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) and linguistics told me that she carefully refrained from criticizing nonstandard English in the classroom and felt it was important to do so. Then she added as a humorous aside, a throw-away line, that “of course” she policed her own daughter’s grammar with fanatical vigilance. It was, I thought, a moment of truth. People who use “good grammar” do not hesitate to force it on the children they love.

In view of this, I often find myself annoyed by contemporary linguists who have made traditional English teachers objects of ridicule. Stephen Pinker, for example, the author of The Language Instinct, refers to dangling participles, split infinitives and the “other hobgoblins of the schoolmarm.” He is a brilliant linguist and author, but for teaching my children English, I’ll take the schoolmarm.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2013 edition.

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