September 01, 2015

On the Papers: Irrational Rules: Minuscule Mysteries of Grammar Demystified

We have failed to understand that grammar should be approached not as rules but as tools to help readers read.

George D. Gopen

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If we were taught grammar at all, we were asked to memorize rules and enjoined not to break them. Many of us—especially those schooled after the mid-1970s—were never taught grammar. Studies had “proved” there was no connection between success on grammar tests and writing well. In the 1990s, grammar faintly returned; but many of its teachers had not themselves been educated in its mysteries. We have failed to understand that grammar should be approached not as rules but as tools—tools to help readers read. In this article, I look at three rules that are not founded on reason—the kind of rules that convinced us the rules were in the service not of readers but only of English teachers.

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