Linguistically Informed Writing Instruction

Cover of

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Many students today are frustrated by the writing process and with good reason.  While writing is an art, grammar is a science.  But, for decades this distinction has been blurred.  Or, worse, it wasn’t even acknowledged.  

In many classrooms, students are told to rely on their own judgments to figure out grammar, but then their intelligence is called into question when those judgements don’t line up with those of the teacher.  Since “good” grammar is supposed to be a hallmark of education, many students feel  intimidated (or worse, stupid), which further discourages them from any serious consideration of this subject.

My mentor, Walt Wolfram, has equated what passes for language education in this country to espousing the view that the world is flat (Wolfram and Schilling Estes 1997), and he’s not alone.  Geoffrey Pullum made a splash in 2009, when he criticized Strunk and White’s famous grammar book, which sadly has been a primer to many otherwise-highly-educated people in this country.   I say “sadly” because this book misidentifies basic concepts like passive voice, and (like Dr. Pullum) I have seen the results.

There’s no reason for students in this country to be on the cutting edge of the latest syntactic theories, but, as my former undergraduate professor Gary Underwood used to say, there’s no reason for them to be 200 years out of date, either.  I’ve taken this advice to heart.  My undergraduate students don’t read the latest Chomsky publications, but we do consider some of the major contributions that he’s made to the field of syntax in my grammar classes.  Students learn to model these sentences, but they also learn about problems with the model.  In this way, they are learning critical thinking skills instead of memorizing.

Students often tell me that their writing instruction would have been more meaningful if they’d only had this class first.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Such skills force students to become active observers of language structure, instead of just passive users.  And, this skill gives confidence to some students who have always feared technical subjects.

While the past 200 years of grammar lessons in this country have largely left a lot to be desired, we are making progress.  There are now some wonderful resources out there that address grammar in a more sophisticated manner than it has been taught in the past. There are also linguistically sensitive guides to more graceful writing styles.  One just has to be willing to look.  Below are some of my favorites, but feel free to email me for more or to leave suggestions in the comments section below.



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