Bad grammar guides: University edition

As you might know, I like to review grammar books. For this post, I decided to look at the grammar advice offered by university Writing Centres. Virtually all universities have something like this. It’s a place for students who are struggling with assignments such as essays and reports. Generally they’re aimed at first language speakers, but some have ESL support as well.

One thing I found was that a number of writing centres offer little or no grammar advice. Instead, their focus is on topics like how to structure essays, how to write for different academic disciplines, how to do a bibliography, and so on. Some offered almost no online advice at all, and their website was mainly a contact page for students looking for in-person help. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, since that’s what the writing centre is for.

Some, however, offered guides on grammar, and these the ones I’m reviewing here. I picked three universities for this post, and focussed on only one or two issues in each case. This is to keep the post a readable length, and to avoid repeating myself too much. Many of the issues that I’ll discuss were not unique to a single university, and I could easily have picked a different three (although the website design for the University of Calgary is something special).

The problems were basically the same in each case: explanations reliant on out-dated traditional models of grammar grounded in a prescriptive philosophy.

Before starting, I want to make special mention of the University of Western Ontario, which had the best grammar guide that I came across. It’s brief, but still thorough. It uses diagrams! That’s great for certain concepts such as the semantics of tense. Whoever wrote that clearly has training in grammatical analysis. I have the strong feeling that it’s an ESL teacher, but I can’t really put my finger on what makes me think that.

University of Illinois

This grammar manual is representative of so many that I looked through. It’s thin on explanation, heavy on examples, and suffers from a lack of expertise. There’s very little grammar described at all, and no consideration about what is important to a student who is consulting this site. It’s just an arbitrary list of grammar topics, chosen because they’re the standard ones you find in every book or guide.

Let’s look at the first set of entries, for example, which is on nouns. It has the classic definition “A noun is any word that defines a person, place, or thing in a sentence.” I’ve never liked this definition because it’s clearly not entirely true. There are plenty of examples of nouns that don’t fit this pattern, like “construction” or “party” which refer to events and activities. Sure, you could say that those are “things” and therefore they fit the definition, but I think at this point the meaning of the word “thing” becomes so loose that it’s basically meaningless.

Here’s my bigger problem: this is the only sentence on the page. The rest is just lists of examples. Surely, at a University Centre for Writing Studies, they could take the time to *write* one or two more sentences, explaining how this is just a generalization and not true of all nouns. Maybe even give a little discussion about how you can identify some nouns by their morphology (anything with the -tion suffix is a noun, for example).

I’m left wondering why this is even included at all. What purpose does this page serve? What did I learn from reading this? How will I be able to take this, and put it into practice when I go to write a sentence? It’s literally useless. The same goes for the page on Proper Nouns and Pronouns. Just one-sentence definitions and lists of examples. No grammar. No discussion of why I need to know this, or how this can help me be a better writer.

The page on mass/count nouns does slightly better. It actually touches on some grammatical properties of these two noun types, e.g. use “many” with count nouns, use “of” with mass nouns. The page on pronoun agreement also has a bit of grammar. The page on noun case is sloppy and never addresses how nouns differ from pronouns in terms of case. There’s also supposed to be colour-coding for words on the page, but it doesn’t appear.

The other parts of speech are haphazard too. The section on verb tense gives the present and past without explaining any of the grammar or semantics. The future tense isn’t even mentioned. The auxiliary ‘do’ is said said to appear if “there is no other helping verb that will fit”, whatever that means. The page on superlatives and comparatives gives the same examples in both the “Adjective” and “Adverb” chart; the word ‘much’ appears three times overall.

Finally, the author doesn’t know the difference between “category” and “function”. On this page the author says that prepositions “function like” adjectives or adverbs because they modify something else. On this page prepositional phrases are said to literally be adverbs. Let me just state the obvious here: prepositional phrases are not adverbs. Those are different categories. The fact that they can both be used to modify other parts of a sentence is irrelevant. All parts of speech probably serve some kind of “modifying” function, so you should be careful using that as a diagnostic tool.

Illinois, this guide is not helping your students. Here’s what’s happening: Students with an interest in grammar and language are going to largely ignore this guide because they don’t need it, and they will be able to mentally fill in the gaps with their prior knowledge. Students with no background in grammar, or who aren’t native speakers, are going to be left with the impression that grammar is hard, confusing, boring, and arbitrary. For goodness sake, there is a Department of Linguistics on campus. Moreover, two of the faculty members in the department list “language pedagogy” as one of their primary areas of expertise! Surely someone’s available to double-check these things?

University of New Hampshire

This one doesn’t have too many actual grammar pages. Most of it is about the structure of a paper, how to do bibliographies, and so on. The grammar that is available contains some problems though. Let’s look at the Handout on Articles.

The first page of this handout is fine. The diagram for articles is kind of nice too. The second page gives examples of “problem spots” and “exceptions” when using articles. It’s weird to read because it’s like the author suddenly forgot everything about articles from the previous page. The supposed exceptions are just examples of ordinary language.

Definite and Indefinite Nouns: It is sometimes difficult to determine whether a noun is definite or indefinite, as it often depends on the situation. The sentence, “Please get __ cup from the cupboard” could work with “a” or “the” depending on whether the listeners knows which cup the speaker might want, or depending on how many cups the speaker has in his cupboard.

That’s not an exception or a trouble spot. What has been identified here is simply the normal use of English articles. When someone has a specific cup in mind, they say “the”, otherwise “a”. How is this exceptional or problematic? It’s textbook example of how articles work. Depending on the context, you pick a different one. Is this author surprised about this or something? Is he trying to warn us that we aren’t mind-readers, so we can never be sure about our listener’s knowledge, and therefore can never be sure which words to pick? I don’t really understand.

Count Nouns: Whether a noun can be counted depends on the situation. For example, “sugar” isn’t usually a countable noun. (No one would say, “Can you sweep up 40,000 sugars?”) However, in a restaurant, someone might ask you to “pass a sugar.” Here the speaker really means to “pass a packet of sugar.

Again, this is not an exception. This is a rule. When a noun is used with an article, we interpret it as a count noun. If the semantics of the noun would normally give you a mass-interpretation, then your interpretation changes a little bit and you infer that the stuff comes in units of appropriate type. “Pass me a beer” assumes a bottle or glass, “pass me a coffee” assumes it comes in a cup, etc. It’s interesting to note that this is harder to do when the stuff in question doesn’t have a typical container. I don’t really know how to interpret “Hand me a snow” or “Hand me an information”.

The reverse is also true. When a noun that has a typically count-interpretation is used without an article, you get a mass-interpretation. This is known in linguistics as the “universal grinder” effect. Compare “there was a cake on the table” with “there was _ cake on the table”.

The author seems baffled by the fact that context affects interpretation. This is an extremely basic fact about language that any competent linguist or grammarian should be aware of. There even exists systematic ways of studying how context influences language.

Multiple Correct Answers: Sometimes, when deciding between articles, you might find that there is more than one correct answer. For example, one can say, “We stopped the car so the ducks could cross the road,” or “We stopped the car so ducks could cross the road.

Once again, I just don’t see the trouble. Both sentences are grammatical and mean different things. Use the one that corresponds to the meaning you want to convey. Don’t get caught up by the fact that sometimes we can describe a situation in multiple ways.

Did you know that if you change the word “duck” to “tiger”, you can get an entirely different meaning? Boy, that sure is confusing. I never know if I should say “duck” or “tiger”. I guess it depends on the context or something, but that seems like a real problem spot for English users. How do you guys even manage?

How about some pronouns now? According to the guide, all three of the following sentences are wrong. Can you figure out why?

* Harry was always late for class, and it drove his teacher crazy.
* Harry was always late for class, and this drove his teacher crazy.
* Harry was always late for class, which drove his teacher crazy.

You’re probably scratching your head. They all seem pretty normal, don’t they? Well apparently they’re wrong because “it”, “this”, and “which” are pronouns, and therefore must refer back to nouns. Since they are all referring back to the entire clause “Harry was always late for class”, the sentences are wrong.

I have never ever seen this argument before, and I know why: it’s complete bollocks. There are two flaws.

The first is that pronouns don’t refer to nouns, they refer to noun phrases. I’ve discussed this before over here.

Secondly, if these are referring back to whole clauses (and everyone knows that they are) then maybe, just maybe, they aren’t pronouns. They are pro-forms, but not pro-nouns. In other words, the sentences aren’t wrong, the grammarian is. Rather than look for alternatives explanation that makes sense, though, the author has opted for the much easier route of broadly condemning everyone else’s behaviour. Prescriptive grammar at its finest.

University of Calgary

This one deserves to be on the list if only because of the outdated design. Look at this:

It recommends that I have Internet Explorer 3.0 (!) in order to do some of the quizzes. In fact, the code for this site is so old that it’s not supported by my current Google Chrome. Was this designed the same year that Strunk and White was published?

One thing I want to focus on here is the page on voice (active/passive). The active voice is when the subject of a verb does an action, and the passive voice is when subject takes the action upon itself. This is a near-universal definition, and I probably could have picked any guide on this point. This definition captures maybe the majority of cases, but it’s actually wrong.

Consider, for example, the sentence “the chocolate melted”, where chocolate is both the subject and the thing undergoing the action. Other examples: the leaf floated down the river (the leaf is not in control of the floating), the sky cleared (though not of its own volition), the truck drove off (well actually the truck driver made it do that), etc. These are called ergative verbs. It’s a whole class of very common, very productive verbs that traditional grammarians have apparently never heard of. I have a post over here discussing this, along with other examples of subjects that are not actors.

There’s a second major flaw on the page where it says you can identify a passive by looking for “past-tense” verbs. Again, this seems to work for cases that quickly come to mind: The show was watched, The idea was considered, and so on. But this turns out to be wrong if you look a little further. In fact, there’s a counter-example on the very same page, barely one paragraph above: “The apples were eaten by John”. If the verb had a past-tense form, we’d expect “The apples were ate by John” which is obviously wrong. The term that the Calgary guide was looking for is “perfect”, not “past”. The verbs in a passive sentence look the same as their perfect forms (the ones that go with the auxiliary “have”).

I also want to complain about their definition of an “adjective clause”. But first, let me tell you about something called “endocentricity”. It’s a basic principle of syntax: any XP has to have an X in it. Less formally, if you name a phrase after something, it should contain that something. If you call a group of words a noun phrase (NP), then it’s got to have a noun (N) in there somewhere. If you call something a verb phrase (VP) it needs to contain a verb (V). Makes sense right? In fact, it probably seems so obvious you’d wonder why we even need to mention it, let alone give it a fancy-pants name like endocentricity.

Well, the Calgary guide manages to get it wrong. It defines adjective clauses as any subordinate clauses which merely appear to function as adjectives. For example, “Here is the person who wanted to meet you” contains the clause “who wanted to meet you”. That clause describes the noun “person”, therefore it’s an adjective clause. Even though it doesn’t contain any adjectives.

It’s ironic that these manuals end up being a muddled mess of sloppy explanations. They are in some way a perfect example of the writing they are supposed to be teaching you to avoid.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Linguistics

One response to “Bad grammar guides: University edition

  1. tmezpoetry

    Thank you for this! I’m in a perpetual battle with grammar :)


Tell the world what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s