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From a Grammar of Sentences to a Grammar of Texts: Thoughts and Impressions on Grammar and Writing.


Throughout his ten years of teaching writing and literature at the college level, the author observed with great interest the paralyzing effect that the lack of preparation in grammar has on students when they are given writing assignments. When students are challenged to express their thoughts in a more appropriate academic style, they generally show various responses to that challenge. Some students simply freeze and do not write at all; others express anger and frustration when their writing is "rejected" by the writing instructor. This essay emphasizes the importance of reconciling the teaching of grammar and genre to help students bring together two fundamental aspects of discourse: style and genre. By doing so, teachers of language and writing will help students go beyond a grammar of sentences and reach a grammar of discourse, which is traditionally referred to as discourse analysis.

On Grammar and Writing

In The Nuptials of Philology and Mercury, Martianus Capella, a rhetorician from Carthage, draws a nice allegorical picture of the seven liberal arts, which made his work highly attractive to the Middle Ages. According to Capella, at the nuptials of Philology and Mercury, the bride receives as a wedding gift the seven liberal arts personified as women. The first part of this gift is Grammar, represented as a severe old woman, carrying a knife and file with which to remove children's grammatical errors. The second item is Rhetoric, represented as a tall, beautiful woman, wearing a rich dress decorated with the figures of speech and carrying weapons with which to wound her adversaries (pp. 268-270). We encounter the same image in the work of Theodulphus of Orleans, who portrayed Grammar with a whip and shears to spur the lazy and to prune faults.

When I first met my Traditional and Modern Grammars class at the University of Northern Colorado in 1997, the anxiety on the faces of the students made me almost feel that I was back in the times of Martianus Capella and Theodulphus of Orleans. The course that I was about to deliver was "a gift" from the academy, but it was certainly not a gift that the students looked forward to. This was a 200-level course, and yet most of the students who signed up for the class were juniors and seniors who stalled this course until the last semester in their career as college students. Grammar was definitely not a friendly course to take since it was associated with the idea of discipline and punishment. Many of them most likely learned some grammar at high school. It was almost equally certain that they were bored by it. The irony is that these students, most of whom were English majors with a liberal arts emphasis or an elementary and secondary school teaching emphasis, clearly constituted the new task force of teachers who would eventually spare school children the trouble of learning any grammar, because grammar was dropped from the curriculum and their students might well never know the difference between an adjective and a verb in their lives. Those very few students with keen interest in the study of grammar and discourse would have to go to departments of linguistics to learn about the structure of the English language.

The word "grammar" derives from grammatike or grammatike techne, which in classical Greek meant "the art of writing." Grammaticus was considered a connoisseur of the word, the expression, and the form of discourse. From these definitions and from the story of Martianus Capella, we can draw a number of consequences, some of which have been thoroughly examined by linguists from different schools. Firstly, in a widely literate society such as ours, we are presented with the challenge of the primacy of writing over speech. Current spoken language, particularly in the academy, is subjected to the rules of traditional grammar. Secondly, written language is the language of education and power. Today, though all humans are virtually endowed with the faculty of speech, they still willingly or unwillingly acknowledge the power of writing. Witness the huge numbers of writing programs in this country alone. The Platonic project, which is based on the powerful rule of exclusion that says only those who know should rule, still deeply informs the Western mind today. And thirdly, grammatical correctness is presented as a body of rules normalizing language use. Such rules come from outside of the form of discourse to be added to it by a mean-looking old teacher.

From these consequences, we can draw a further implication that says: Knowledge and language are rigorously interwoven. Michel Foucault reminds us of this intimate relationship between language and power. He says: "To know is to speak correctly and to speak is to know as far as one is able, and in accordance with the model imposed by those whose birth one shares" (87). Foucault defends the normative character of grammar: "It is thus part of the very nature of grammar to be prescriptive, not by any means because it is an attempt to impose the norms of a beautiful language obedient to the rules of taste, but because it refers the radical possibility of speech to the ordering system of representation" (87).

In this essay, I do not intend to go into a detailed discussion of the various grammatical theories from Quirk to Halliday and Chomsky. But I want to call attention to the fact that all these theories of grammar, regardless of their intellectual positions, point to what Chomsky, in his analysis of the famous Alpha Movement, calls "conditions and constraints," or "government and binding" in sentence structure. That is, all these grammars emphasize the importance of a logical order of things. Therefore, a pedagogical view of teaching language and writing that seeks to reconcile form and content, and by extension grammar and genre, will ultimately help students appreciate the complex and rich character of texts. In this sense, I want to suggest that writing should be taught within the framework of what Bakhtin calls "a stylistics of genre," that is, an approach that will help us to bring together two aspects of discourse: style and language and genre. I believe that by doing so, we will reinvent a safer and productive classroom environment that emphasizes the social character of language. In this sense, the proper object of grammar is not just the sentence, but discourse, which must be understood, to use Foucault's terms, as "a sequence of verbal signs" (83).

First, I'd like to raise a few questions that I consider fundamental to the study of style and its relation to language used in specific situations. How does the language that we use fit the circumstances that surround a speech event? How do we make choices from approximately similar parts of speech/grammatical categories in the language to fit particular situations? What is it that controls such situations? These questions are essential since our knowledge of the language that we use is immensely complex. We carry with us not only knowledge of a vast and intricately patterned system of linguistic signs, but also an experience of the different circumstances that surround such a system. This knowledge of the linguistic system that we use and the varying circumstances which surround it inform the choices that we make from approximately similar items in the language to fit particular situations.

G. W. Turner defines stylistics as that pan of linguistics that "concentrates on variation in the use of language, often, but not exclusively, with special attention to the most conscious and complex uses of language of literature" (7). Turner argues that grammarians begin their work by isolating one variety for systematic study of language. Formal written language is a most convenient and available variety for systematic study. The traditional purpose of grammatical study is to bring order and correctness into our conception of language. Grammar is traditionally not interested in the various circumstances that may surround language use. It is primarily concerned with correctness within a formal written variety. Turner continues to explain that the grammarian "is happiest in a world where the nuance and detail of real life and real language are subdued" (9). For Turner, "Grammar leaves out part of real language and we feel that what it leaves out, the particularity of particular occasions, brings us nearer to what we mean when we talk of `variation' or `style'" (13). According to Turner, grammar "moves away from the particular to the general" thus making us ignore the differences operating along the lines of important social categories of gender, class, age, social status, and other distinctions. (12).

An important consequence that we can draw from Turner's discussion of style is that through discourse, we enter into the social reality of what is happening around us. When we do not understand a language, we are inevitably outside of the social reality constructed by that language. At any time a language belongs to all its users. But we cannot say this about discourse. There are discursive practices that belong to a limited number of people, such as scientific English, legal English, the language of advertising, and other varieties of English. These varieties of language clearly show that legal procedures, religious rites, and ships' flags are systems used only by a certain number of individuals acting together and for a limited time. This communal language action, shaped by a specific moment in time, is what sociolinguists, such as Widdowson, quite appropriately describe as context. Widdowson informs us that we "cannot have text without context."

In the light of all this, we can ask the following question: How can we, as language teachers, begin to describe the intricate totality of a speech event? That is, how do we describe from a stylistic perspective a speech act such as a proverb, an ad, a political speech, a sermon, a poem, or a news item? I will take as an example sentence length to illustrate the importance of grammar and style in writing. In the opening paragraphs in Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we fred a combination of short, long, simple, compound, and complex sentences that convey a sense of variety in the writing:
 Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

 For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off
 their hinges; Rumplemayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa
 Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

 What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when,
 with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst
 open the French windows and plunged at Bourbon into the open air. How
 fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early
 morning; like the flap of a wave, the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and
 yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did,
 standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to
 happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off
 them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh
 said, "Musing among the vegetables?"--was that it?--"I prefer men to
 cauliflowers"--was that it?

This combination of short, long, simple, compound, and complex sentences clearly translates a complex state of mind, traditionally known as a stream of consciousness. But more importantly, it shows us the wide range of choices that are available to a fiction writer and that may not be available to a writer of a scientific or legal text.

Sentence length is even more significant in a text like "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid. In this piece, we are presented with a series of short sentences that produce a powerful effect on the mind of the reader. When I asked my first-year Introduction to Literature students to justify the need from the part of the writer to use such sentence length, their response was that the effect of Kincaid's one-sentence story was of everything happening all at once. In the text they saw a series of instructions given by a mother to her daughter, one after the other, with hardly any chance for the daughter to speak. In their view, the mother's discourse had a paralyzing effect on the girl when she was bombarded with a torrential flow of interconnected instructions that defined her role and status as a young woman who was doomed to be "a slut" anyway. The students also saw a keen sense of audience from the part of the mother who was engaging in a powerful rhetorical situation that gave the opportunity to produce a stronger effect on her daughter through the choice of language. Here grammar is introduced not simply as a stock of terms that define categories and relations among the parts of speech, phrases, or sentences, but as a system that has the power to explain complex rhetorical situations.

We should expose our students to at least three characteristics of language that are fundamentally important for the understanding of grammar: complexity, productivity, and arbitrariness. Language adapts to a variety of complex rhetorical situations. For example, scientific English relies heavily upon the passive voice because it is more concerned with the result of a process rather than with the agent. Within one language, the possible sentences with all the possible meanings are innumerable. Clearly it is within this enormous complexity of language that we must look for grammar.

Productivity is shown by the fact that many, if not most, of the sentences that we produce or hear are new, in the sense that they are not identical with sentences that we have produced or heard by anyone, yet we understand their meaning. Arbitrariness is another important characteristic. There is no one-to-one relation between sound and meaning. There is no necessary connection between what is normally referred to as tree, arbre, arbor and the sounds that convey that meaning. The decision of naming is arbitrary. This accounts for the fact that languages differ, and they differ most of all in their grammatical structure. We also touched upon the notion of conventions and their importance in governing speech/linguistic communities. It is essential for individuals to follow the conventions of their linguistic communities in order to belong to those communities. Only individuals with a higher intellectual status, such as writers, have that privilege of "breaking" the conventions for artistic purposes.

My experience with the teaching of writing at the University of Arizona and at the University of Northern Colorado has given me a new insight into the ways most of my American students view writing. Students who have genuinely expressed their desire to learn how to write have approached me on numerous occasions. "I want to learn how to write," some students would tell me, and I would indeed fred this a sincere and legitimate need. Annie Dillard tells a remarkable story in The Writing Life of a well-known writer who was collared by a college student who asked,
 "Do you think I could be a writer?"

 "Well, "the writer said, "I don't know ... Do you like sentences?" The
 writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I
 am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of
 course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked how he came
 to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint." (70)

I teach my students how not to be afraid of language, especially those who have been traumatized by the grading system in our schools. I teach them how to love the sounds and the rhythm of words, what the words do to one another--for example what adjectives do to nouns and the amount of freedom of mobility that adverbs have in a sentence. I firmly believe that we only care about something when we truly love it. Painters would not care for their art if they did not love the smell of the paint that they work with. Similarly, care for the language can only happen effectively with love for language. Many of us remember those days at school when we were chastised every time we would make grammatical mistakes. Many of us were given written assignments through which we would inflict upon ourselves rigid moral lessons, such as "Write an essay in which you discuss the value of silence." We cannot teach love for discourse in an environment of fear of the grade and of embarrassment of being proved stupid.

In addition to the legitimate need that students feel in order "to know how to write", we should also invite them to consider "what writing is about." The statement "I want to know how to write" remains severely limited without the intellectual attitude expressed by the statement "I want to know what writing is about." Let me quickly add that the statement "I want to know what writing is about" does not exclude the possibility that students write. It does not exclude reading either. In fact, the statement "I want to know what writing is about" articulates an intimate relationship between reading and writing. In this context, reading will not be a matter of letting the words glide over our eyes, but an operation performed on language. It will be a matter of seeing the type of stylistic choices made available to the writer. In this sense, the reading subject does not assume a detached, contemplative stance before the text he or she is reading. This reader is active, mobile, multiple, collectivist, and participatory in the business of writing.


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Capella, Martianus. De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, ed. A Dick, Leipzig, 1925.

Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences. N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1994, reprint 1966.

Kincaid, Jamaica. "Girl" in Literature and Its Writers. Ed. Ann Charters & Samuel Charters. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

Turner, G. W. Stylistics. Middlesex: Penguin, 1975.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1925.

Lahcen Ezzaher is an assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. He has taught the following courses at UNC: Traditional and Modern Grammars, First-Year College Composition, Advanced Expository Techniques, Classical Rhetoric, Writing about Literature, and Writing Cultures.
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Author:Ezzaher, Lahcen E.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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