Grammar or Usage?

Whenever there’s a conversation about the sad state of writing today, you can count on one thing: someone is going to suggest a return to old-fashioned grammar.

I disagree, on several counts. First, I insist that grammar is different from usage – they’re not synonyms. What’s more, I believe that our tradition of grammar worship is a big mistake that – ironically – takes us down the road to more mistakes and weaker writing.

Let me explain.

Grammar deals with the underlying structure of language. It’s an abstract subject that covers only a few errors, such as subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, and pronoun case. When you study grammar, you spend most of your time learning terms like noun, appositive, adverbial conjunction, antecedent, and infinitive.

But don’t you need to understand those concepts in order to create intelligent sentences? No. The grammatical system in English is based on word order. Jane fed the cat is very different from The cat fed Jane.

In other languages (Latin, for example), word order doesn’t matter. Here’s a clumsy attempt to show you how our sentence might be done in Latin: The cat object Jane subject fedSounds difficult, doesn’t it? But whether it’s Latin, English, or any other language, tiny children quickly master sentence grammar. (You never hear a child say, “Mother me gave a cake of piece.”)

Here’s the surprise: Most of the mistakes that drive teachers and editors crazy have nothing to do with grammar. Those mistakes arise from problems with arbitrary writing practices, such as quotation marks, homophones, apostrophes, word-choice errors, and double negatives. That’s the realm of usage.

So you can spend hours and hours diagramming sentences, memorize dozens of grammatical terms, and spout every rule of grammar from memory – and never discover that – for example – ain’t is a poor word choice.

Another issue that lies outside the realm of grammar is confusion about American vs. British usage. Writers who live in the USA often lapse into British word choices (amongst, whilst, centre) and British-style quotation marks. Again, those are usage errors.

My problem with grammar is that it doesn’t address most writing problems. Students with severe writing issues obediently spend weeks or months learning about intransitive verbs and interrogative pronouns – and continue to make the same errors nevertheless. 

So what’s the answer? Focusing on the areas where the problems lie. Here’s an example of how to do that. When I was teaching first-year-college students, I used to give them a list of problem words to memorize. The first test of the semester involved taking out a sheet of paper and writing the list from memory. Here it is:

Of course students also had to be able to identify the problems associated with these words. For example, many people (not just students) mistakenly insert apostrophes into hers, ours, and similar words. So few people know how to spell lose that I believe it’s going to disappear from the language before long. The same is true of woman – it’s a word that many writers never use: everyone is a women. A lot and receive are so consistently misspelled that I often send a congratulatory email when I see them spelled correctly. And so on. (Did you notice that many of those errors have nothing to do with grammar?)

The list also saved me a lot of time when I was grading papers. On days when assignments were due, I used to visit each group while students were peer-editing their work. A paper with an error from this list was immediately handed back to the author, who had to go through it carefully and find the mistake. (The groups were a big help with this.) Of course I didn’t point out the error – no point doing students’ work for them! 

Result? Fewer errors. (If you’re an instructor who wishes your students were more accountable for the quality of their writing, click here.)



4 thoughts on “Grammar or Usage?

  1. Darrell Turner

    Jean, is there an error in the pair listed in the left column, third line down? Should it say “a lot/allot” rather than “a lot, receive”?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Lack of clarity on my part! “A lot” and “receive” are two of the most commonly misspelled words in the language. (Well, “a lot” is more than one word, but you know what I mean!) I’m going to add an explanation. Thanks, Darrell!

  3. Darrell Turner

    You’re welcome. I won’t comment on your use of the spelling “too” in “are too” in your response. I presume that you thought I was implying that “a lot” and “receive” are not commonly misspelled words, and you were saying “Are too!” 🙂

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