How important is Grammar?
There's a conversation going on on Crimespace about pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying "I could care less" when they mean "I couldn't care less." But I have another argument as well.

Grammar is not important.

Well, I'll back off of that... simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?

What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.

Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.

It should be the least important thing.

National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That's what I work on.

If a story starts:

"Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road."

I am not going to sit there and help fix the "me and you" and the correct "your" first. I'm going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head's spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.

I want to get to the point where someone will write "Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda."

Then we can go back and fix grammar.

I think people worry about grammar because it's easy to fix. You can--when you edit someone's piece--say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it's easier than saying, but there's a plot hole here on page 202 and I don't know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.

I'm always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I'm always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.

Meaning, however, takes work.

What do you think?

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Karen, we definitely need both, especially as writers. My point is: What use is grammar if you have no reason to use grammar? If you can't write a story or concoct a logical arguement, why do you need grammar first?
Maybe some of our politicians should read this.
People who don't write stories will be writing something in their lifetimes, even if it's just a letter or an email or a memo. Grammar is the backbone of writing. Once you know the rules, you can put a sentence together and express your ideas and tell your story or write your letter without looking like a moron. We could just string random words together, but they wouldn't mean anything. It's just like Julie Andrews' lesson on Do Re Mi in "The Sound of Music." Once you know the notes, you can put them together to create a song. Once you know rules about writing, you can create much more lyrical sentences.

Are you really serious about this?
I think he is serious. I don't know the rules. I write by instinct. I'm self-taught. And I appreciate every mark my editor and copy editor put on my page (and I try to learn from them, but darn it all if they still don't mark up the pages for all my trying.) Maybe I know the basics, subject, predicate, things that are taught in elementary school, but if I am bad at grammar, if I don't know a misplaced modifier from a split infinitive, if I place commas by instinct, does that make me a bad writer? (We'll forgo the argument about how much better I'd be if I'd gotten those years of education.) I'll hazard a guess that there are plenty of highly educated professors teaching English who look down on those of us who don't know our grammar, professors who can't write a novel for all their diplomas.

That isn't to say it shouldn't be taught. But it is to say that one can teach things in a different order. I think that is the point he is making.
Maybe we can all agree that if we understand the basics, we'll know what rules we're breaking when we do it.
Just a thought, but why are these kids waiting until eighth grade to learn how to express themselves creatively? What are they learning in the previous seven years? I can remember writing stories and poems for class well before that. By seventh grade, we were ready to learn the framework to hang that creativity on.

My thought is that it's just like any other artform. Kids start out fingerpainting, but they don't really learn to structure their artwork until they're taught to use the colors and tools necessary to grow and mature in their art. Sure, some of them are going to be innovative with those tools and colors, but they're the exceptions.

Grammar is important in that it helps structure the language to present a coherent picture of what you're trying to say. If you're actually telling these kids that grammar isn't important, I think you're doing them a disservice. Perhaps in the current educational climate it's viewed that way, but the educational powers-that-be are beginning to admit that they got that wrong. Teaching of grammar is now quietly being encouraged again. Most of the kids that learn grammar aren't ever going to use it for creative writing once they're out of school. They'll be using it in business environments. That's one reason TPTB are changing their minds about grammar's importance. An inability by younger generations to properly use the language in business dealings makes a lot of employers unhappy, and makes the US as a whole appear woefully uneducated.

The 60s and 70s led to the idea that by imposing sets of rules on kids, you'll somehow be squashing a genius. Providing a framework to build creative ideas around isn't squashing a genius. Every artform has that framework. The artform called writing has plenty of practitioners who were taught grammar and used that framework to build spectacular works of fiction. The grammar wasn't an imposition, it was an integral part of the beauty of what they wrote.

So I guess that's a long way of saying that I don't agree that grammar is less important. Creativity can't be taught. It's not going to be squashed by learning how to hang it on a framework. Teaching grammar as part of teaching kids to present their thoughts in a coherent and orderly manner makes a great deal of sense to me, just as learning the rules of art and of music provide kids the basics they need to build on. The impression I get from the way you've framed your post here and in the other thread is that you're presenting grammar as a necessary evil rather than as a tool to help them express themselves better. Forgive me if I have that wrong, but that's how it's coming across to me.

Oh, and on the thought of dialog and grammar, dialog comes across better if it's presented in a more conversational manner. Since many people don't speak grammatically, it would be silly and sound ridiculously stiff to write dialog in a way that didn't reflect that.
I agree that there is often too much emphasis placed on grammar during the creative process. I've seen people paralyzed by whether to use a comma, semi-colon or hypen, when they should be concerned about delivering a coherent thought. I write in something like stream of consciousness, and I try not to worry about whether I inadvertently slipped into passive voice along the way. It lets me tell my story, and gives my editor something to tell me I did wrong.
>gives my editor something to tell me I did wrong.

In reality, many things get past the line edits too. I see passive voice all the time in pubbed books, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying the book. I'm not reading with my little red pen poised for margin comments, ready to pounce.
Let me take the topics one by one, but I'm sure they'll intertwine.

First off, I am completely serious about this topic. It is so much more important to teach a child how to string a coherent arguement together then to teach them a split infinitive. Yes, subject and verb agreement are important, but if the student does not know what they are writing about, it doesn't matter if they know what a past participle is. They have to know what they are writing about before they can do anything.

Secondly, I have never told a student grammar isn't important. It is important. But it is secondary. It is something that can be fixed later. Getting your ideas across in an intelligent manner, that is the problem facing our children today. You can do that, I assume, because most of you are published somewhere. These kids can't do it as well as you can. They have to learn how.

Once they are at the point of being coherent, then we can go back and dust up the grammar.

Grammar is something they should have learned in grammar school. At least basic grammar. If they write how they talk, I'm happy with that. And once we clear the slang out of their work, and the AIM/text speak, we're another step closer. But they have to be able to get their idea across. Otherwise, everything else is moot.

What do I can if they can write a clear sentence, if they aren't able to ask the question asked. Or create a story that has anything to do with the picture they see. Take this comment from Aldo (a principal) on my blog:

"The research on teaching writing to K-12 students indicates that teaching them how to organize and develop ideas is more important than grammar. In fact one of the most popular programs around called Six Traits writing places grammar toward the end of the process. It focuses on ideas, organization, word choice and sentence fluency."
I think my age is showing here. I do know that schools in the last 20 years have had less emphasis on the tools of writing (spelling, grammar), while emphasizing creativity more.

But I still stand by my belief that grammar is the backbone of writing. My daughter is in fourth grade. She's being taught grammar and spelling, as well as how to form a coherent thought on paper. These things go hand in hand.

Some people just aren't creative. Those people need the grammar skills to just write a basic sentence so they can get by in the world. You can't teach creativity. You can teach writing tools.

And I spent years working on a newspaper with the famous argument: Is it easier to teach a reporter how to write or is it easier to teach a writer how to be a reporter? Hands down: You can't teach instinct, which is what being a reporter is all about, but you can teach a good reporter how to write a competent story with the right tools and teaching them the rules.
Okay, I guess we'll simply have to disagree, because to me grammar is an integral part of organizing thoughts and ideas into a written form. It's a necessary tool, and it's not any less important than any other part of the process, because we all write, whether it's creatively, in letters, or in business dealings.

And please understand that this comment is not about you. I don't trust much of what the educational PTB have to say or what they've done to the educational system over the last thirty years or so. They've treated the education of our children as if it were some giant social experiment, and our kids are now suffering in the workplace and on the world scene because of it. All the No Child Left Behind programs in the world aren't going to help if what's wrong with the education system to begin with isn't fixed, and the fact that grammar and spelling aren't even dealt with on standardized tests isn't something to be proud of.

If an eighth-grade education three or four generations ago is equal to what our high school graduates are leaving the system with today, then I'd say this social experiment that is modern education is a decided failure.

Just my opinion, of course, but obviously one I feel very strongly about. We will have to agree to disagree.
Once again, I must say that a basic understanding of grammar should be taught when you are younger. That is important otherwise students will not know how to write. However, once students hit middle school it isn't about creativity, but organizing thoughts.

What good is an organized sentence if it's about tigers, when the question they have to answer is about the novel THE OUTSIDERS?


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