Too many teachers waste
way too much time teaching grammar in order to "help students avoid errors."
It simply does not work. Unfortunately,
many teachers, who realize that it does not work, continue to do so because
they don't know what else to do. (Now, of course, they will have the KISS
Approach.) Those teachers who think that it does work have never
been able to prove so. If they had been able to prove it, NCTE would not
have passed a resolution
against the teaching of grammar. Indeed these teachers may be doing
more harm than good. They may, for example, focus on comma-splices and
then note fewer such splices appearing in students' writing. That effect,
however, is more likely the result of the well-known phenomenon of the
students writing shorter, safer sentences. The best way to deal with errors
is not to deal with them formally at all. Part of the problem is that almost
no distinction has been made of the three types of errors --usage, syntax,
and pronoun reference; the second part of the problem is that syntactic
errors should probably be welcomed instead of being squashed. Usage can
be considered the clothing of language -- it may or may not be appropriate
for the occasion; syntax is language's skeleton -- without it, language
"Usage" involves the "Don't"
of the rules of etiquette, such as: "Don't say 'Me and him went to the
store.'" "Don't use a double negative." ("We haven't got none.") "Don't
use a double comparative." ("Gwynn is a more better batter.") and "Don't
begin a sentence with 'but.'" In no case that I have ever seen does an
error in usage result in misunderstanding, or even in lack of clarity.
The rules of usage describe how educated people are supposed, by other
educated people, to speak and write. They are rules of etiquette! And in
some cases, as in the rule about "but," they
are themselves erroneous. As teachers, we have no right to force them upon
our students outside our classrooms.
Unlike errors of usage, syntactic errors affect the reader's comprehension of what was written or said. If a student writes
Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground.and means that "he" was thrown from the car, everything is fine. But if he meant that she was thrown from the car, the sentence does not say that. In the KISS Approach, the rules of syntax are validated by our psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language. Anything that violates that model, or that causes the process to crash, is an error. According to the model, a brain would chunk "Thrown from the car" into one unit, and then chunk that unit to the next word that makes sense -- which in this case is "he." This is, of course, close to the traditionalists discussion of misplaced modifiers, but whereas traditional grammar says "This is the rule because I say so," the KISS Approach says: "This is the model. The model makes sense to your brain. Then according to the model and your brain, the rule has these consequences if you violate it."
As I hope to show, unlike the rules of usage, the rules of syntax can always be validated in terms of what will happen in the readers' brains. And these rules extend even to such problems as "its" and "it's" and "to" or "too." Consider:
"It's" means "it is," so "It's raining." is a normal sentence
easily processed. But "its" means "belonging to it." A reader processes
the "Its raining" and expects a verb after it, as in "Its raining made
them cancel the picnic." The period therefore causes confusion --
a crash. "To" always raises the expectation "to what?" "Too" never does.
A person who reads "He wants to go to" is expecting something such as "to
the store," or "to swim." The period thus causes confusion -- either something
is missing, or the word is spelled wrong.
The way to help students with
syntactic errors is not to present them with a bunch of band-aide rules
that focus on covering the errors. Teach them how sentences and punctuation
are supposed to work -- and teach them by using real texts (Burn those
textbooks!) including samples of their own or their peers' writing. Students
who know how sentences and punctuation work, and who can apply that knowledge
to their own writing and reading, do not need to know the names of, or
to be given examples of, errors. The KISS Approach provides students with
the instruction that they need. For the benefit of teachers, I am flanking
each level of the KISS Approach with explanations of typical student errors
relevant to that level and of how the KISS Approach will help students
Because the KISS Approach concerns
how words syntactically function in sentences, and because pronouns can
function in any way that nouns can, KISS does not directly address students'
problems with pronouns. As in many other aspects of the teaching of grammar,
both too much and not enough are being done.
Clarifying these distinctions for students may help those
who have troubles with shifts in person. ("We went to the park. There you
saw big elephants.") We cannot, however, as we now apparently do, just
teach these distinctions and forget them. If we do, then students will
forget them likewise. It isn't difficult to work these terms into assignments
two or three times a year, just enough to keep students from forgetting.
("In your journal for this week, write to someone you haven't seen in a
while. Use second person pronouns.")
The KISS Approach, it should
be clear, will not solve all of students' problems with usage and pronoun
reference. Some time will have to be spent on usage, preferably, as noted
above, individually or in small groups, and students should be taught a
few things about pronouns. But because it focusses on meaning, and because
it focusses on the meaning and function of every word in every sentence,
the KISS Approach will help. The student who wrote "We went to the park.
There you saw big elephants." doesn't really need an explanation of grammatical
person; he simply needs to be asked, "Why should I see big elephants because
you went to the park?"
This border is a reproduction of
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
1889, Oil on canvas, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London