The Professional Importance of Grammar and How it Should be Taught
Over the years, language learning has developed with increasing disregard toward proper grammar. Rather than focusing on syntax, educators are increasingly concerned with language fluency, which stems from a communicative language teaching approach rather than a traditional syntactical approach. This lack of grammar teaching coincides with an era of technology that has similarly impacted a generation of people to stray from formal communication methods. When studying how the lack of grammar in education affects the professional sphere, it is important to consider not only employer expectations, but also how clients view and feel about informal communication methods. In an era where communication is getting faster and becoming more terse, it is necessary to view opinions of grammar not only from the perspective of older employers, but also from the perspective of the new generation of clients, purchasers, and scholars.
Writing simply would not be writing without the rules that shape words and string together sentences into fluid paragraphs and comprehensible arguments. We use these rules every day while sending text messages, writing essays, producing business reports, or even when we update Facebook statuses. Yet, despite the prevalence of writing in our everyday lives, proper grammar has been kicked to the curb. The apparent grammar disconnect is hard to trace. Children are educated in grammar basics starting in elementary school, but despite efforts from the Common Core standards and other educational bodies, many professionals believe the informality of new technologies and the changing modes of communication have weakened the emphasis on proper grammar. My research primarily focuses on how professional grammar deficiencies stem from inadequate grammar teaching and changes in communication methods, and how, to some degree, the ability to construct sentences is analogous to the ability to construct thoughts. Therefore, understanding and employing proper grammar are important for both educational and professional success.
Understanding Grammar in Context
Before analyzing the impact of grammar, its meaning must first be clarified. Different definitions of grammar exist in different contexts. While the New Oxford American Dictionary defines grammar as “the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general,” a linguist’s definition of grammar can be more subjective. For example, radical linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the idea of universal grammar, which is the idea that “children are born with the innate capacity to master language, a power imbued in our species by evolution itself” (Ross). Chomsky further pursues this idea by saying our internal sense of grammar is what uniquely allows humans to “form plans, do creative art, and develop complex societies” (Ross). While the idea of “universal grammar” seems plausible to some degree, the concept of teachable grammar is more widely accepted. An interesting approach to grammar teaching is addressed in the International Journal of Research Studies in Language Learning by Indian researchers Samuel Praise and K. Meenakshi, who define grammar as “merely a set of rules to preserve the written word” (Praise). The main point Praise and Meenakshi make is that “grammar is not taught in isolation but often arises out of communicative task,” and therefore, in learning language, “opportunities are provided for both inductive and deductive learning of grammar” (Praise). This implies a correlation between grammar and communication, which supports Chomsky’s theory that understanding proper grammar is what allows people to conceive and execute plans. By drawing this parallel, Chomsky, Praise, and Meenakshi suggest that grammar has greater implications than simply constructing sentences.
It is hard to gauge how grammar should be taught since there are so many confounding variables that can affect linguistic studies. Even if curricula are standardized, subjective teaching styles and/or different knowledge absorption levels of students can greatly influence the effectiveness of a curriculum. Therefore, when studying grammar, it is more relevant to focus on case studies of various methods. According to Praise and Meenakshi, analyzing trends in communicative language learning can provide insight into the changing role of modern-day grammar teaching. These trends can be broken into traditional approaches (up to the late 1960s), classical communicative language teaching (1970s to 1990s), and current communicative language teaching (late 1990s to the present) (Praise). In the earliest approach, “great attention to accurate mastery of grammar was stressed from the beginning stages of language learning” (Praise). Contrarily, in the middle approach, “attention shifted to the knowledge and skills needed to use grammar [which were] the communicative skills and not simply grammatical skills” (Praise). Contemporary language teaching further emphasizes the importance of communicative skills, thus substituting the importance of grammar ability for fluency (Praise). As a result of this shift, it is becoming more important simply to convey ideas than to convey them properly.
“Texting Culture” and Communication
This trend toward informality is not uncommon, and also reflects current “texting culture.” A 2012 journal article by undergraduate student Elizabeth Gorney discusses how factors such as “email, texting, and Facebook have led to new words forming, new grammatical changes, and other modifications that are both subtle and noticeable” (Gorney). Gorney attributes “the technology and speed that messages can be delivered” to the consequential change in grammar usage (Gorney). In particular, Gorney cites abbreviations as a downfall: “though abbreviations do allow for faster communication, they take away the eloquence of [language, are unprofessional, and potentially create] a loss of understanding between people” (Gorney). Generally speaking, the developing “texting culture” is one of speed and convenience. Yet this convenience comes at a cost; the price of using abbreviations and fragmented sentence structure is proper grammar. This declining grammar usage on all fronts—personal, educational, and professional—has been attributed to the convenience of not using proper syntax. Therefore, it is a fair assumption that disregarding grammar is what makes texting language so convenient.
Explicit and Implicit Functions
Perhaps writing informally is convenient, but it is certainly not practical. Correct grammar serves explicit and implicit functions that extend to how people structure their thoughts. English Professor Samuel Keyser discusses this phenomenon within the context of grammar teaching in elementary education: “[it] is possible to look at grammar as attempting to teach children how to make, critically examine, and reformulate hypotheses about language—using their own knowledge of English” (Keyser, 40). The conclusions young students can draw from grammar studies teach them the valuable tool of deductive reasoning. In fact, it is through grammatical structure that people learn how to create strong arguments. Keyser conveys this idea through lesson plan examples that show how drawing distinctions in the English language enables students to “analyze and criticize statements which use this distinction implicitly” (Keyser, 44). For example, as early as elementary education, students learn that many verbs and adjectives create restrictions on their subjects and objects. While a painting can be pleasing to a person, a person cannot be pleasing to a painting. By distinguishing the correct contextual verb and adjective usages, young students are creating grammar constructs that allow them to better express ideas and better understand the English language.
Generally speaking, students are taught the grammar basics in primary education. They learn how to use punctuation, how to conjugate verbs, and how to think critically, among other lessons. Yet the attention given to grammar has been replaced by an emphasis on comprehension. This unfortunate reality has created the misconception that one does not need proper grammar to convey an idea. The effects of the devaluation of grammar coupled with the aforementioned texting culture can particularly be seen in the professional sphere. Despite the perceived change in grammar usage employer expectations remain unchanged. According to Sue Shellenbarger, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, “managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace” (Shellenbarger). Shellenbarger further cites a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management: “about 45 percent of 430 employers said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees’ grammar and other skills” (Shellenbarger). The impact of poor grammar can be detrimental in the professional setting. “[S]uch looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors” (Shellenbarger). In a Forbes Magazine article responding to Shellenbarger, Susan Adams notes that “language is constantly changing, and often [these] changes bubble up from informal usage” (Adams). Adams also quotes Kyle Wiens, the CEO of an online repair manual called iFixit, who claims that “he [will not] hire people who have bad grammar [and] gives all of his job applicants a grammar test” (Adams). Both speaking and writing well involve a level of intelligence and thoughtfulness that is demonstrated through proper grammar. Grammar organizes the words that create big picture ideas, which, without structure, would be exceptionally less convincing.
Opening the Discussion
In 2012, The New York Times published a “Room for Debate” in its opinion section called “Is Our Children Learning Enough Grammar to Get Hired?” This debate, which featured five professionals’ opinions toward grammar and the younger generation, was partially sparked by Wien’s comments regarding grammar. Some of the highlights of this debate follow. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, wrote that “without grammar, we lose the precision required to be effective and purposeful in writing,” and went so far as to say “even a poorly constructed tweet reflects a poorly constructed thought. Without command of grammar, one can’t even truly read, much less write” (Rushkoff). Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, wrote that “when young people are taught to undervalue literacy as a life skill, they are being cruelly misled” (Truss). On the contrary, other professionals felt that grammar was not an all-telling indicator of job applicability. John McWhorter, contributing editor at The New Republic and TheRoot.com and author of What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), wrote that “there is an extent to which scornful condemnation of ‘bad grammar’ is one of today’s last permissible expressions of elitism.” He further questioned, “How many of us can really justify barring someone from a decent job because he or she isn’t always clear on the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re?’” (McWhorter). Brock Haussamen, professor emeritus of English at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey and lead author of Grammar Alive: A Guide for Teachers, wrote that “writing that looks careless and is riddled with errors does not preclude the possibility that the applicant has other skills and plenty of determination” (Haussamen). John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, even went as far as to say that an abbreviated writing style can serve as an asset: “If a candidate can convey in 140 characters what took me 300 words—even if it means cutting some grammatical corners—I would say that person brings a useful talent to the table” (Challenger).
What these professional perspectives can tell us is that while grammar is important, it does not necessarily prevent an individual from succeeding in a non-writing-oriented job. That being said, many professionals believe that while grammar may not necessarily be an indicator of performance, a person who pays greater attention to grammar details will likely pay greater attention to details in general. Unfortunately, there have been no studies conducted to prove this correlation, so it is important to look at the factors that can affect one’s grammar in order to draw conclusions. “An employee who can write properly is far more valuable and promotable than one whose ambiguous text is likely to create confusion, legal liability and embarrassment” (Rushkoff). Yet, is it fair to discriminate against prospective employees if their educations failed them, as opposed to their own willingness to learn? “Anyone concerned about applicants’ grammar is probably dismayed at the state of public education today, and understands that the people most poorly served by this system find it increasingly challenging to find work providing a living wage or upward mobility, much less satisfaction” (McWhorter). This issue is complex because employers want qualified applicants, but prospective employees’ inadequacies stem from factors outside of their control. To address this issue, it is important to first look toward making changes in public education.
Introducing the Common Core
In order to combat grammar deficiencies, politicians and educators combined forces in 2009 to create a set of statewide educational goals called The Common Core Standards Initiative. Currently adopted by 43 states, the standards outlined by the Common Core are intended to be “research and evidence based, aligned with college and work expectations, rigorous, and internationally benchmarked,” as specified by the Council of Chief State School Officers (Common Core). Grammar is addressed within these standards under the category of “Language Standards.” For each primary education level between kindergarten and grade 12, specific goals are outlined, such as how grade two students should learn how to use reflexive pronouns and how grade five students should be able to “explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections…and their function[s]” (Common Core, 28). These and many more grammar goals directly address the problematic texting culture by reverting back to a teaching system that emphasizes grammar proficiency. However, because the Common Core Standards are a relatively recent establishment, it is nearly impossible to gauge their impact on the professional sphere.
A change in the way educators approach grammar is necessary in order to create a more effective and professional workforce. The Common Core Standards Initiative is trying to combat this issue, but a continual emphasis must be placed on grammar to ensure this initiative’s success in the professional realm. It is also important to draw a distinction between employers and the newest generation of employees. Many well-regarded employers note the prevalence of poor grammar in the works of younger employees, which indicates a generational shift in emphasis away from grammar and form toward expression and informality. While these employers are not denouncing the academic potential of the newer generation, many perceive a correlation between informality and laziness in the workplace. Further research should be conducted to analyze whether or not this perception is true. An understanding of the implications of a generational shift could potentially reveal the future of grammar in writing and communication. Regardless, it is clear that the Common Core is a step in the right direction. By re-emphasizing grammar in language learning, perhaps “business casual” could remain a term for clothing, not a style of writing.
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