When you were in school, do you remember completing worksheets with instructions like this?

In the sentences which follow, underline the simple subject once and the simple predicate twice. Circle the direct object once and any indirect objects twice. Put round brackets around all adjectivial clauses and square brackets around adverbial clauses and draw arrows to indicate the nouns or verbs which these modify…

Perhaps you remember going to classes where teachers proudly hung posters like this one?

In short, you probably remember studying formal grammar. When I was in middle school, the formal study of grammar was commonplace and my classmates and I spent many hours dissecting sentences into their component parts. We did not do much actual writing per se, and we really didn’t integrate the lessons learned into our everyday communication; however, in this sort of laboratory environment, we could recognize a split infinitive or dangling preposition instantaneously.

This ability didn’t really help us become better writers.

Years later, when I began teaching, formal grammar study was clearly no longer fashionable. Instead, students were expected to learn grammar “in context”. Scholars have written literally thousands of pages devoted to this.

N.B. Yes, I do mean “literally”, not “figuratively”. There really are thousands of pages.

Essentially, learning grammar in context means de-emphasizing the “rules” and letting students decipher patterns through exposure to grammatical forms proper to the context. In other words, the “correct” use of standard English is appropriate for an academic essay, but not necessarily for a story or informal conversation.

Teaching, and learning, grammar in context was seen as the way to go by many for quite a number of years; however, in the last few years, some are questioning the necessity of learning grammar rules at all. This is the era of texts, “tweets” and “snapchats”:

U dont rilly cr bout grmmr do u???​​​​​​​ #h8grmmr

Well, actually, I do. I still teach grammar to my students. Most of the time it is still done in context, but I do also break out mini-lessons from time-to-time where we examine, among other things, incomplete and run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, the use of apostrophes, homonyms, and some of the other common errors that often occur in student writing. Believe it or not, in small doses, most of the students enjoy it. We emphasize that there won’t be grammar tests per se, but the students do try to apply the lessons learned into their own writing, and it does seem to make a difference. Further, IB students like to understand “why”. They like to know whythey did well on a test instead of good, and why we put the apostrophe at the end of the word when describing the boys’ basketball team.  I don’t argue that any of this is vital to survival in the early 21st century. I do believe, however, that the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is important, and that the intellectual exercise of analysing a set of grammatical structures and their applications, in moderation, is valuable. So we still try to put the apostrophes in the right places…

Patrick McCarthy

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