Hold that Grammar: Rules and Expression

Posting Philip Pullman’s recent column on the Zoetrope discussion boards seems to have stirred debate on grammar and its proper role in both creative expression and the teaching of language. Where do rules help expression, and where do they hinder it? Along these lines, I have been following Clay Shirky’s discussion on "tagging" (and other ways of classifying and ranking the reliability of text and images) with interest, especially his entries in which he debates "top-down" versus "bottom-up" hierarchies. In a recent entry, he talks about language as an emergent system. He mentions John Marks, who writes:

Human languages are spontaneous
orders which have many important similarities with science – particularly if we
accept the view of science as a redescription of the world. Natural languages
are not designed; they are the products mainly of evolutionary rather than
constructive rationalism. The artificial languages for which this is not true –
mathematical and computer languages – are special cases, which lack many of the
essential characteristics of natural languages.

Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual
attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In
order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most
fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his
idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such
as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex
decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them
confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how
they develop. A framework of rules governs the forms which natural languages
take. But these rules are concerned with the structure rather than the content
of what we say.

To John’s point about structure versus content: I recently read McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, which argues that grammar and spelling did not become "important" until the advent of movable type, largely because they helped replicability. Prior to that–in the "manuscript" age, writers were a lot more "flexible" in their writing so that they could explore different meanings. It’s no surprise that McLuhan was a huge fan of James Joyce, who exploded some of these conventional notions about how the writer and reader interacted. (Reading McLuhan has given me newfound appreciation for Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

I agree with Philip Pullman. I think too many teachers over-emphasize doctrinaire writing over creative expression. It’s important to teach grammar and spelling, too, of course, since for better or worse, they are the mark of an "educated" person, but too much grinding of the rules also results in stilted expression.

Fellow Zoer Kirsten Snipp gives her perspective as an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher.

I don’t think that most people would argue with the general idea that
the basics are necessary for survival in society. The perfect example
of this comes from McLuhan as you pointed out. The more systematized a
system becomes, the more necessary it is to follow the system in order
to be generally understood by others using that same system. In other
words, it isn’t that creativity isn’t important, but before quantum
physics, there’s balancing a checkbook. Still, as Pullman points out, a teacher’s slavish adherence to
(grammatical) structures can be destructive. I pointed to studies which
show (red pen marks crossing out bad grammar) don’t even do anything to
improve bad grammar in the first place. (Though to be fair, I’m talking
from my experience about second language writing.)

[…]

BUT it seems a little bell-the-cat-ish. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in
this thread, the biggest question for me as a teacher is HOW to do
that, given the constraints inherent in most classroom situations. AND
– even if you can achieve that goal (which I think I manage to do
sometimes in a few wonderful transcendent moments every now and
then;-)) how do you further protect that budding creative voice from
the RULES, e.g. ‘don’t use passive voice,’ ‘first person narratives are
amateurish,’ even when these structures are used grammatically?

I asked Kirsten whether she thought Asian students tended to be more rules-based (given how the education system has evolved). She said it rankles her when people complain about how the grammar of the ESL students is "atrocious."

The students DO know the grammar. They do, do, do, DO KNOW
the grammar. The problem is, they aren’t taught how to apply it to
their own writing, nor are they taught a systematic approach for
analyzing their own written productions. They simply spew and the
teacher is meant to pick through the gunk for undigested grains […]. There simply
isn’t any level of evaluation on content, because the reining idea
seems to me to be – don’t bother to even THINK about content until the
form is perfect. If that isn’t a life-sapping method for approaching
anything, let alone writing, I don’t know what is.

When I taught classes in Beijing, I found that my students really craved grammatical rules, as if that were the secret to communicating in English. Thinking too much about grammar (and spelling) too early can get in the way of communicating, however. My father’s grammar is probably much better than my Mom’s (certainly his written English is better), but my Mother is the extrovert of the two and fearless about speaking to people. It’s interesting to me that many people thus consider my Mom’s English "better." Additionally, a lot of Taiwanese I know have decent written English skills, but have trouble communicating via spoken English (even though as I talk to them more, I realize their vocabulary is reasonably extensive. English teaching in Taiwan has traditionally focused on written and rules-based English, though, and very little on the colloquial). Another thing I noted is how some people change personalities as they shift from language to language. I used to have students who were confident and talkative in their native language, who would become shy and quiet as they shifted into English or another foreign language. Again, another real-life example of how people change given the context. How then does language affect place within the network hierarchies that Clay and others have been analyzing?

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