In Defence of Stephen Jay Gould

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Wed Dec 22 23:06:51 MST 1999

Borba100 at wrote:

> My two cents on grammar.  I love it.  I loved learning to diagram sentences.

As a matter of fact -- so did I. I mastered it without ever doing more
than browsing through the text books. Which is why in one of my
posts I pointed out that the only people helped by learning grammar
were those who new grammar already and didn't need to study

Seriously -- whatever the appearances may be, the proposition
that people could be made better writers or speakers of english
by "teaching them grammar" (a) does not teach grammar to anyone
who doesn't know it already and (b) is a major instrument of
serious oppression of *millions* of people in the United States.

I am *not* talking here about serious study of linguistics. I
wish I knew more of technical linguistics myself. It is an
important science. Nor am I talking about the very special
needs of someone who is learning a foreign language in
an academic setting. Nor am I saying that "bad grammar"
is a desirable feature of anyone's writing. Nor have I said
anything about how writing skills (including accuracy of
grammar) might be increased for the 10s of millions who
write so wretechedly. That is a huge topic, and more
could be learned about it, perhaps, if we could FIRST
get the superstitious belief in "GRAMMAR" out of
people's head.

And also seriously -- it should be accepted as at least
a tenable hypothesis that *writing* (as opposed to
speaking) is like perfect pitch or the ability to wiggle
one's ears, an aberration. After all, humans have not
changed biologically in around 150,000 years -- but
writing (in the sense we are speaking of it here, as
a mass skill) only goes back a couple centuries.

I've been trapped in situations in the past where I had
to pretend to teach grammar. I even taught a course
in "grammar" a couple of times. It works beautifully
for people like me and Jared who get a kick out
of it. For everyone else it is, AT BEST, a waste of
time -- and more probably, does serious damage
to them.


I am simply stating a *fact* that has been established in
study after study after study. Teaching a student grammar
does NOT improve his/her grammar in writing.

> It is all connected to Christopher Caudwell's point  that freedom can only
> exist in recognition of necessity; learning grammar helps the mind write
> creatively, it gives the subconscious (or whatever it is) a scaffolding on
> which to grow things.  The subconscious loves scaffoldings.  There is
> something to be said for learning the rules of any craft.

I like Caudwell to, and he is good on developing this point. I too
love scaffoldings. And there are I think probably rules for the
craft of writing -- for those for whom it *is* a craft. How many
of you would like to have your intelligence, your very worth
as a human being, judged by how well you could sing opera
or carve marble or run the 100 metre dash?


> Best
> Jared Israel

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