File Under Things I Don't Understand: Sucky Grammar Books

I checked out a bunch of grammar style books from the library this past week. I'm trying to evolve my ability to teach students about grammar and editing. This is so much more difficult than it sounds--for a whole plethora of reasons English teachers and linguists are familiar with--and it's complicated by the fact that all grammar texts suck. No really, they are terrible. (I'm hoping to write my own at some point, but it will probably suck too!)

I have looked at hundreds of grammar textbooks for students and style guides geared toward the general population. They are universally lacking. Some of them have good features, but even the best books are no match for a room full of fledgling writers.

Let me give you an example. I picked up this book, revised in 2012, written specifically for secondary and post-secondary teachers and students. There are introductory notes making suggestions for teachers and students about how to use the book. The first chapter is called "The Sentence" and simply describes the parts of sentences and the basic vocabulary used throughout the book. Chapter two begins describing 20 common sentence patterns. In theory, this is a fine strategy for organizing a book. However, of the first four patterns, 3 require the use of semi-colons. They don't begin with a declarative sentence or a simple series, but with compound and complex sentences requiring semicolons. What?!? How is this logical or helpful?

Every semester I have about 150 students, and of those 150, approximately 5 can use semicolons correctly--five if I'm lucky. Most adults I know struggle with them. Microsoft Word grammar check recommends inserting them every time it encounters an incomplete or run-on sentence, and Microsoft Word is almost always wrong. If nearly everyone in need of a grammar book already struggles with semicolons, why begin a discussion of sentence patterns with them? It seems like we might want to build up to that. This is common enough failing of grammar books--bad scaffolding--and this one was at least straight forward with clear examples.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="840" caption="There are ways to use images to teach punctuation, but Gordon isn't even in the ball park."][/caption]

One of the other books I checked out was not geared toward students specifically, but I'm not quite clear who is the intended audience. The book, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, is "The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed." With words like "for the innocent" in the title, I anticipated the book might be for the struggle writer or the uninitiated. However, considering the addition of "the doomed" at the end, I also anticipated some kind of satire, which likely isn't a good match for the student writer.

[caption id="attachment_527" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Is that a style guide in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? (An image from Gordon's book.)"][/caption]

Let's just say this book is heavy on the satire and light on the grammar instruction. So, who is the intended audience for a satirical style guide? I'll tell you who it is not: students, arm-chair editors, those interested in grammar and syntax, those interested in improving their sentence styling and sane people. Grammar is hard enough for many people; there is no need to obfuscate it unnecessarily as this little text does so well.

When I was flipping through this book I yelled for Mr. Smarty Pantalons to come explain it to me. He's a bit more analytical than me and I thought he might catch something I was missing. The first thing he did was read the back cover, which says this book teaches one to "give expression to our most perplexing thoughts" and puts the reader "in the grip of a bizarre and bemusing comedy of manners." How many instructional books can you say that about?

[caption id="attachment_528" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Another one from Gordon's collection."][/caption]

The drawings are strange enough by themselves (and I'll get to those in a minute), but it's worth taking a look at one of her "well-tempered" sentences to get a flavor for her bemused approach. This little ditty is in the chapter on semicolons. I'm starting the quote at the beginning of the sentences and following it all the way through.

"Dangling from the wings of cherubim are numerous transitional or explanatory expressions that ask for treatment similar to that accorded conjunctive adverbs; they too are preceded by a semicolon when they link two independent clauses" (63).

That clears it right up for you, doesn't it? At least it might have after you googled "wings of cherubim" to figure out what the reference was, or flipped to your other grammar book to look up the definitions of the terms "conjunctive adverbs" and "independent clauses." This is one of my biggest complaints about grammar and style books in general and this one in specific: the over use of technical and academic jargon.

[caption id="attachment_529" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="One of the confusing images in Gordon's guide."][/caption]

Anyone who is already struggling with run-ons or fragments or any other aspects of standard English usage is likely to be unfamiliar with and intimated by these terms. Language instruction isn't quite like math or chemistry instruction. In chemistry there are specific elements and atomic weights and formulas and a taxonomy to ideas in which uniformity of terms is necessary. Language, though, is a human right, and if--as teachers and community leaders--we want people to use language in standard ways--like say complete sentences and consistent uses of semicolons--we need ways to discuss and teach it that are far less technical than most of these books. (This is the hole my someday-textbook hopes to fill.)

Now, back to the best and most disturbing part of the book: the illustrations. Yes, you read that right, this book has illustrations, largely ink and line drawings from 18th and 19th century books and periodicals in the fabulist tradition. Though the introduction suggests there is some kind of narrative happening between the text and the images, it was neither easy to pick up on nor relevant to the subject matter. I became obsessed with how weird and random some of the illustrations were and simply stopped reading the grammar stuff. (An annoying side note: she does not list the titles or sources of the illustrations individually but rather lumps them all into one paragraph so the reader has no clue where any of this shit really came from.)

Grammar books usually suck, and they can do so without drawings of some kind of wild cat suckling a naked lady.

[caption id="attachment_530" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Am I the only one confused by this? The full image is below."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_531" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="This is the full image on the page opposite of the "wing of cherubims" Quuote."][/caption]

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  1. I can give a whole grammar/cultural literacy lesson on cherub/cherubim! And part of it comes from the Prentice Hall Grammar Workbook, which I am going back to using in the fall for English 110.

  2. Hilarious Noel! I'm sure the 110 students love that!


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