Or, about teaching grammar–or not teaching it, as the case may be.

I realized several days after writing that post that I might have conveyed the impression that grammar and punctuation can’t be taught. Well, of course they can. (One of my favorite examples is Ascham’s The Scholemaster.) But it’s very difficult to teach the finer points of grammar in an upper-division literature class, like the ones I often teach.

Right now, for example, I’m teaching a senior class on the early English novel. I have plenty to do teaching Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Haywood, Sterne, Burney, and Austen (and Watt and other critics). Where would I fit dependent clauses, referential pronouns, future progressives, homonyms, sentence fragments, basic tenses, and apostrophes?

I know a few elementary teachers, and when they tell me (ruefully) about the (state-mandated) methods they use, it doesn’t surprise me that my students arrive at college with only a rudimentary understanding of grammar. They’re aware that they’re not giving their students much preparation, but it’s difficult for a single, commonsensical person to take issue with a massive, irrational bureaucracy. See Kafka’s The Trial for relevant examples.

I have taken to assigning a basic writing text in all of my courses, and I try to spend a little time in class and a lot during office hours helping my students come to grips with the challenges of writing. (My current favorite is the excellent How to Write by the inimitable Alastair Fowler.) But knowing that my students aren’t fully prepared, or why, doesn’t help me to fit another semester’s worth (or more) of material into an already crowded syllabus. There’s a reason they used to call elementary school “grammar school.” Grammar and punctuation are foundational.

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