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Description automatically generated with medium confidence\(^{187}\)

    Decades of research have shown that isolated grammar exercises\(^{188}\) are among the worst uses of time in a writing class, given that such practices can result in students’ writing actually getting worse.\(^{189}\) Education researchers did a meta-analysis (a compilation, summary, and recommendation) of many research projects on writing over the years. In their 2007 report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Steve Graham and Dolores Perin found that isolated (traditional) grammar teaching was the only instructional practice to actually have a negative\(^{190}\)—that’s right, negative— impact on students’ writing. In the 1980s, George Hillocks, Jr. conducted a comprehensive synthesis of writing research that went back to studies done in the early 1960s.

    Hillocks’s academic article, “Synthesis of Research on Teaching Writing,” and his book, Research on Written Composition, could not have been clearer about the harmful\(^{191}\) effects of traditional grammar.

    However, a technique called sentence combining (where students take a series of short sentences and combine them into longer ones, using a mix of clauses, phrases, and linking punctuation) did fairly well in multiple studies of student writing.\(^{192}\) In other words, students who did sentence combining (crafting short sentences into longer ones, actively manipulating sections of sentences,\(^{193}\) rearranging clauses and phrases, adding or deleting modifying words, and punctuating the longer sentence so that it was smooth) saw their own writing improve after this work. But grammar exercises—quizzes\(^{194}\) on parts of speech, the naming of types of phrases, clauses, and sentences? After those, students’ writing got worse.

    But no one believes this research—other than those who conduct or study writing as a career. So convinced is the general public that young writers are in desperate need of old-fashioned, rigorous grammar, that writing teachers from grade school through grad school continue to be pressured to teach grammar as a way to improve writing. Even some teachers continue to think that if only grammar could be drilled into students in a fun, engaging way, students would write correctly\(^{195}\) ever after. It doesn’t happen.\(^{196}\)

    It goes without saying that everyone appreciates clear, well-edited writing. But teaching grammar won’t help because clarity is slippery.\(^{197}\) What’s clear to one reader might be unclear to the next, depending on his or her respective background knowledge. For example, sewing directions would be clear to a tailor, but not to someone who has never picked up a needle and thread. An article in a physics journal would be clear to a physicist, but not to a pharmacist.

    Even what is considered so-called correct writing can vary depending on the conventions expected in a particular genre or publication. (Google “Oxford comma” if you want to see sparks fly over conflicting views of punctuation.\(^{198}\)) Every writing project is constrained by previous iterations of that type of writing. Is it a memo, résumé, game manual, business plan, film review? Its context and publication also shapes its readers’ expectations. A letter to the editor of The New York Times has some features in common with a letter to the editor of Newsday (a local Long Island paper), but even this same genre looks different in these two publications. Everything from punctuation to evidence presented in the respective letters is noticeably different, including sentence structure and length, vocabulary level, and rhetorical appeals aimed at different readerships.


    • Why do YOU think “no one believes this research”?
    • Do you understand the idea that “clarity is slippery?” Can you think of your own example beyond the example above that compares a physicist to a pharmacist?

    \(^{187}\)This tweet is currently from a suspended account; it might’ve been deleted?

    \(^{188}\)Snippet from = Dunn, Patricia A. “Teaching Grammar Improves Writing.” Bad Ideas About Writing. Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Libraries, Digital Publishing Institute, 2017. CC-BY.

    \(^{189}\)Oh my god!


    \(^{191}\)Sad face.

    \(^{192}\)Huh. Maybe we should only focus on those activities, then?

    \(^{193}\)Cool, so let’s add those kinds of activities to this chapter, right?

    \(^{194}\)No quizzes in this book on those items – just helpful AND OPTIONAL review!

    \(^{195}\)This word should be in quotation marks.

    \(^{196}\)Agreed. It won’t happen in this book.

    \(^{197}\)You’ll see a lot of slippery ideas in this chapter.

    \(^{198}\)Do you know what an Oxford comma is? Go ahead and Google it to see what the controversy is all about. Or read the upcoming piece called “The Comma Comma.”

    This page titled 8: NERD is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe (Independent Published) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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