Saturday, April 5, 2008

Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer

I'm very fortunate to have a job that I love: I’m an English instructor at Montgomery County Community College. Because the school has an open admission policy, I see a very wide range of students, all of whom are bright, witty and clever in their own ways, most of whom are eager to learn, and many of whom have wonderful, innovative ideas that they can’t always express in a clear and meaningful fashion. The problem isn’t that these students aren’t smart. The problem is that the English language is so riddled with what seem (to them, anyway) to be arcane rules that don’t necessarily make sense. My biggest challenge, then, is frequently that of helping my students cross the great linguistic divide that separates their ideas from their audience. And since this audience consists of my fellow colleagues in various disciplines, who would be shortchanging my students if they accepted anything less than the best both in terms of content and form, I am always looking for new and interesting ways to allow my students to engage in what is widely known as academic discourse. Or, in plain terms, how to talk smart to smart people. Hence my excitement over the opportunity to review Richard Betting’s Grammar Today: The New American Language and Grammar Primer.

Eschewing the smarmy pop-pedantry of the fairly recent spate of grammar books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Betting takes a systematic nuts-and-bolts approach to the issues of teaching and learning grammar. Early in the book, the author discusses the shortcomings of traditional grammar instruction and argues that students first need to understand both the point and the power inherent in communication before they can fully appreciate the nuances of their language. It’s not simply enough to teach students the rules, Betting notes; we need to explain why the rules matter. Additionally, Betting sees a value in allowing students to understand the history of English itself: if we recognize English not as static but evolving, we can allow our students to see that language is, in his words, “a work in progress.” In the end, perhaps it is this observation that gives the book its strength. For Betting, there is no “right” way to speak and write. Rather, we choose various modes of expression for various occasions. What Betting ultimately proposes is that we need to teach students how to describe what they are doing when they communicate, how to recognize that engaging in that process involves making choices, and how to make appropriate choices when trying to achieve different effects or communicating with different audiences.

Overall, Betting does an excellent job of mapping the diverse territories of contemporary composition and rhetoric studies. At the same time, however, I’m not entirely certain that the book will appeal to those most in need of a “grammar primer.” While Betting certainly provides the aspiring composition-and-rhetoric scholar with a compact volume that covers not only the approaches to writing pedagogy that have fallen in and out of favor over the past fifty years or so but also a brief history of the English language as well, my own experience with students who struggle with grammar is that this book may be too theoretical for their liking. Nonetheless, I recommend it to anyone who plans to make a living in the composition and rhetoric field.

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