In Defence of Stephen Jay Gould

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Wed Dec 22 14:32:42 MST 1999

Philip L Ferguson wrote:

> As someone who has to mark student essays, I must say the quality of
> grammar is often shocking and at a level where sentences are difficult to
> understand.  There is nothing positive about bad grammar or the loss of
> grammar.

Philip, you are confusing appearance with cause. I have spent a lifetime
reading student papers and I know how wretchedly controlled the
language is in them. But there is overwhelming evidence that that
"bad grammar" (1) is *not* the result of not knowing grammar and
(2) can NOT be remedied through teaching grammar. Teaching
grammar in an english course is like teaching the biology of Charles
Darwin's grandfather (or even of Aristotle) rather than teaching
evolution. I even suspect that grammar would greatly improve
if the direct teaching of grammar were forbidden by law.

Let me give you an extreme case which is probably representative
of large numbers of those bad papers you have read. Many
years ago I had a student for three semesters, two writing
courses and a literature course. I don't think he ever wrote
a complete sentence in all that time. I passed him with C's
the first two semesters. The third semester he was in my
office one day discussing an assignment (a fairly complex
novel) with me. At that time I had a quick memory and was
able to listen to him, memorized his sentences, and cast them
on a mental screen. I realized that he was speaking not
only "correct" English but in fact was speaking in quite
complex and flexible English sentences. (He also had some
very intelligent things to say about the book.) In other
words, orally he was an A+ student in English (and in
the use of English grammar).

I have not read any of it myself, but a colleague on the ISU
English dept. has studied the research on this -- which
unfortunately is done in various obscure fields and is not
known to most English professors.

You do not learn grammar by studying grammar (unless
you already know grammar and don't need to study
it). The main thing belaboring students about grammar
does is make them self-conscious, slow up the writing
process, and create even more interference between
the accurate sentences created in the brain and the
garbage transferred to paper.


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