Saturday 30 March 2019

Why 'Grammar'? Response to 'Making Grammar Meaningful' from 'Teaching English' (Spring 2019)

(This blog is a response to an article in 'Teaching English' (Issue 19,  NATE Spring 2019.

The article is called: 'Making Grammar Meaningful. Grammatical subject knowledge and pedagogical principles for grammar teaching'

The sub-title is as follows:

'Ian Cushing and Bas Aarts set out the fundamental principles of subject knowledge and pedagogy that teachers need to know to approach grammar teaching effectively.')

My response below argues against the idea that these are 'fundamental principles' and most certainly argues against the idea that what is offered in the article is something that teachers 'need to know' or indeed need in order to 'teach grammar effectively'. 

It argues instead that we have other methods to analyse literature which offer much more than the narrow grammatical approach. 


The article asks: "Why teach grammar?" There is also a question related to a 'why teach x' question? This other question is: 'why teach x rather than y'? That's relevant because of limited time in the curriculum. I could put that as: 'why teach grammar rather than narratology, rhetoric, pragmatics, and sociolinguistics?'

The article talks of 'knowing something about how language works'. Grammar may or may not tell us how language works. Or, I might say, grammar may not tell us very much about how language works. This is because the grammar that is being taught is mostly a system for describing language at the micro-level - that is, mostly at the sentence level. Whether this is 'how language works' is debatable. I would argue that language 'works' at the macro level, (ie at the social level), and this has consequences on how it pans out at the micro level, (ie the sentence level). 

The form and function model of grammar (as described in the article) has some problems: which comes first: form or function? Aren't they co-dependent concepts each relying on the other for definition. It's a similar problem with anatomy and physiology. We separate or segment things (anatomy) according to the functions that we've discovered that the bits of the body do (physiology). How do we know that it's important to separate a heart from the tubes around it? We only know how to segment because  we observe that the heart is pumping and the tubes aren't? 

Conceptually, 'function' (as described by the form and function model of this kind of grammar) is problematic because, oddly in this scheme, as shown in the article, a 'verb' doesn't have a function. How can the unit under the microscope (the sentence) have some parts which have functions (nouns as 'subjects' and 'objects') and another part - (the verb) which does not? This seems arbitrary - particularly in relation to something as crucial (ie the crux of the sentence) as the verb. What is a verb for? What's it doing? What is its purpose? 

It seems odd to me that the sole reason for these 'functions' is to operate within a sentence. This seems like a strange self-serving, circular idea of 'function'. Language is part of human behaviour. It functions as our means of thinking, speaking and writing to each other and to ourselves. It has social origins, histories and social functions. I'm not sure why or how this social component is missing from the classifications that we ask students and children to learn - and the one described in the article. One example as an illustration: the increasing use of 'so' at the beginning of sentences in our speech. We can describe it and name it but this doesn't actually tell us why people are doing it or where it comes from, or what effect its use might having on speakers and listeners. 

Another example: grammar tells us that the imperative form of the verb is a 'command'. Children are asked to spot a 'command' in sentences or passages and these are always and only the imperative form - according to the grammar test at KS2. In reality, we can 'command' in different ways, not always using the imperative form of the verb. And sometimes the imperative itself is not very commanding. This tells me that a sociolinguistic approach to this idea of 'function' will tell us more about what the article later calls 'choice' than this narrowly 'grammatical' approach to function. 

The article states: 'explore how grammatical choices serve to construct and shape meaning.' Why can't we put that differently as 'meaning shapes grammatical choices'? To take the example of futurity, with, let's say my choice to write or say, 'going to':  I have a meaning that I want to convey - namely that I'm going to do something. I use my desire to make that meaning to inform my choice of words. And while we're on futurity, this kind of grammar really can't explain why I might use 'I'll be going out later' as opposed to 'I'm going out later'. It doesn't have explanatory power. 

There is an analysis of a passage from 'Dracula' in the article. It's interesting because the authors play fast and free with their methods: intertwining what I would call 'literary techniques' with the 'grammatical' ones, as if it's grammar giving the lead. They talk for example of 'verbs of cognition or perception'. This isn't 'grammar' really, is it? There's nothing grammatically different between a 'verb of cognition' and a verb of, let's say, 'consumption'.It's much more interesting, surely, to create tables based on, for example 'lexical fields' and find out whether there are 'words' that are doing the job of looking, seeing (ie perception) etc which might include e.g. 'eyes' (not a verb) .  The non-grammatical approach of producing lexical fields is much more productive.

Sensitive literary criticism can focus on the patterns, themes or imagery without using grammar. Oddly, when the authors come to the 'modals' - indeed a good grammatical thing to spot in the lexical field of 'uncertainty' - they've included the modal verb 'will' which is precisely not 'uncertain'!

In the article there is talk of Dracula emerging, and the use of the 'animal metaphor' in the passage. Again, this is not grammatical. The critical technique here draws on the old art of spotting images and figurative language. Fine by me. But figurative language can be carried in a huge variety of grammatical forms. 

Again, if we are trying to explain why this piece is narrated in a particular way, I'm not sure the grammar has much to offer either. Yes, the 'first person' (as mentioned) is crucial because it is the voice of the involved participating narrator. The moment we say this, though, we get into narratology rather than grammar. And, following John Stephens' work, we can ask questions like, what's the difference between 'I' narration and 'he, she it' narration? (We don't even need to use the grammatical terms!) Stephens argues that these different narrations create different 'distances' between text and reader. Again, this isn't grammatical. It's a literary perception. 

Narratology will also tell us that at crucial points in the passage, the diegesis of the account is broken, to e.g. flash back or to make a generalised comment. Why? Grammar won't tell us. Narratology tells us that this 'thickens' an account, so that it is not 'and then, and then, and then'. Thickening an account allows us to perceive e.g. motive, purpose, and 'character' of the narrator (or the narrated focaliser). 

There is also the question of 'reveal-conceal' - again a non-grammatical concept. All writing simultaneously reveals and conceals. Some writing does this more than others. This passage teases and taunts the reader with what he or she might possibly expect, fear or dread might happen. This is why and how it is 'gothic'. Again, we discover this through narratology not grammar. 
All through the passage, we can spot the lexical tricks which invite us to anticipate or contemplate or conjure up what might happen next but which hasn't happened yet because the author has given us the suggestion. Once we have the tool of 'reveal-conceal' at our disposal, we can spot writers manipulating readers more or less, depending on what kind of narrative it is. There are hundreds of ways of doing this and there is no grammatical common ground for them. It's narratological. 

If we look at the passage from the point of view of how it uses rhetoric, we can see an interplay going on between litotes and hyperbole, as with the phrase 'somewhat amused' versus the words 'repulsion', 'terror' and 'dreadful'. Overall, the casting of the scene in darkness, obscurity, the not-quite seen, is either a matter of imagery or it's a matter of the rhetoric of invoking darkness to signify the unknown. Either way, again, it's not grammar that's going to help us locate and analyse this. 

Similarly, we could run a commentary on how the 'body' is signified in the passage: that is, as fragmented and separated. Why, though? Perhaps in order to break up the coherence of the body or bodies in question? A little trip to Freud's 'Uncanny' reminds us that the 'automaton' is a signifier of horror so if parts of the body appear to function separately from the intention of the person, the passage starts to invoke an idea that parts of the body are self-willed. Again, this analysis does without 'grammar'.