In Stark Disagreement with Noguchi

Not a Matter of Time and Isolation but One of Thoroughness

Noguchi’s article was not by any means a favorite of mine. It drew out much longer than necessary and was rather redundant. His initial three goals in writing “Grammar and the Teaching of Writing” were 1) To reduce the breadth of formal grammar instruction by first locating those areas where grammar and writing overlap and then identifying those kinds of writing problems most amenable to treatment with a grammar-based approach.  2) To decrease the classroom hours spent on formal grammar instruction by showing how to capitalize on the already-acquired yet unconscious knowledge that all native writers have of their language. And 3) To make this streamlined “writer’s grammar” more productive by showing how to integrate it with style, content, and organization.

My main issues with Noguchi’s article stem from how unassimilated his listing of research decrying formal grammar instruction – the quantity of studies and researcher names are there but that is all that is given, and a block quote from Hillocks who “reaches harsh criticism” of formal grammar instruction, “In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g. marking every error) resulted in significant losses in overall quality… (248-49)” (p. 3).  Unfortunately and rather frustratingly, how such “criticism” and results were reached is not disclosed or incorporated into the logical flow of the article causing his views to sound presumptuous.

Though, there is great merit to the questions posed soon after, “Just because formal instruction in grammar proves generally unproductive in improving writing does not necessarily mean that we should discard all aspects of grammar instruction… Could it be that the larger failures of irrelevant parts have hidden or devalued the benefits of the relevant parts?” (p. 3).

He lists the probable causes of the failure of grammar instruction as formal grammar “being uninteresting or too difficult is not adequately learned by students”, “even if adequately learned, is not transferred to writing situations”, and “even is adequately learned is not transferable to writing situations.”

I believe and have definitely experienced on a personal level as a writing student and then as a writing tutor, the first two probable causes, but I do also maintain that the third reason is quite muddled and contradictory: if something is adequately learned that should entail, especially with literature and writing, that it is communicable. Transference is an imperative function of experienced and understood knowledge.

As for the first two, there is a tendency for most students to view grammar as something of a formula set like in math and physics, just arbitrary rules that should be memorized by rout and never questioned. These are themes a previous writer from our internship reading selection questioned (Anne Curzan in “Says Who?”). However, though, this formulaic and sometimes historical baggage may weigh down enthusiasm toward learning grammar, I do hold earnestly that if taught with relevance and practicality students can and will garner key traits and apply them readily to their writing. I think a crucial means of doing so is encouraging reading for leisure and beyond required texts to writing students, this will help them understand within context already prepared and that the live in (magazines, newspapers, et al) that grammar varies in many places, but that constancy within a discipline, or at the very least, a task, is essential to communicating one’s thoughts as clearly and accessibly as possible.

It is in this way that a disagree greatly with Noguchi’s expansion of Cause 3, “… but rather the brute fact that the domain of grammar does not overlap in any significant way with the domain of writing, or put more simply, formal grammar has no real connection with writing” (p. 8). This claim seems grossly disproportionate and counterintuitive to the practice of writing- the article itself finds itself adhering to certain rules to express its opinion. The theme of “form fits function” is also one undeniably present in biology, philosophy, and other disciplines: grammar provides a common frame from which to vacillate or adhere to strictly, just as scientists have their SI units and Metric system, scholars of specific fields have their jargon and writers overall have rules they choose to adhere to (stylebooks exist for different newspapers, fields, et al).

The mention of “style” brings me to a statement in the latter half of the article that redeems some of the unproven claims posed in the beginning, “… style is not something completely isolated from content and organization, but something that interacts with both” (p. 13). Content is the set of ideas and organization is the set of grammatical rules, and with this lies the most poignant description of the relation between grammar and writing that Noguchi presents. Style is the refinement of a writer, a descript way to express one’s understanding of the rules, but using them in a novel way and doing justice to one’s original writing goals and ideas. This is something I urge my tutees to pay close attention to when reading their authors’ pieces: looking at diction, patterns of repetition/theme, metaphors, background information, sentence structure, et al. Then once they express proficient understanding of that I encourage them to be aware that they have the power to employ such freedom in choosing words, structure (micro and macro), analogies and examples- they have the power to development their own style and truly step into the shoes of what kind of writer they want to be.

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About rarum leve

Marketing Director, Rutgers University Bioethics Society and Journal
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