Grammar: The Movie



It’s got an all-star cast: Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McWhorter of Columbia, Geoffrey Nunberg of Berkeley, Noam Chomsky of MIT, Adele Goldberg of Princeton, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, Brad Hoover of Grammarly, Bryan Garner of A Dictionary of American Usage, and dozens of other marquee attractions, including (way down in the credits) yours truly. I’m talking about Grammar Revolution, a quirky feature-length documentary by David and Elizabeth O’Brien, which is intended—I think—to wake us all up.

I’m not certain what we’re waking up to. I’ve watched the film twice now. The production values are excellent; we move seamlessly from interview to commentary to footage of children learning and even old newsreels of classrooms steeped in progressivist notions of education. The film divides into three parts. The first, “Grammar,” begins by distinguishing between what linguists mean by grammar and what “most of us” mean by it. This divide, between the linguists and “most of us,” gets both labeled and dismissed as a debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism; there are also some embarrassed admissions on the part of certain linguists as to their most-of-us behavior, when they find themselves frowning judgmentally on someone’s use of a preposition rather than a conjunction. A student named Anna makes passing reference to “power structures” that enforce certain rules in order to maintain their power, but that question gets relatively short shrift. The happy consensus at the end of this section seems to be that there is an identifiable grammar to standard English and it behooves most of us to know it so that we can make our way through a world that expects competence in that regard.

The second part of the film, “Grammar Education,” leaves the debate behind—or, rather, decides “most of us” have won it, and we’re talking now about grammar as a set of codes that are useful to know but that too many misapprehend or fail to know—and focuses on how grammar was left in the dust in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a good deal of slippage here, from grammar through usage, syntax, and diction all the way to regional accent. Since grammar education is in many ways the heart of the film, and the heart of the O’Briens’ project, it’s useful to glance at the teaching page of the website to get an idea of this slippage. There, we see the following quotes:

Grammar often seems to be a low priority in education. Are schools undervaluing grammar, given that employers may rule out applications with sloppy writing? (The New York Times)

Grammar is a litmus test. If job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin. (Kyle Wiens of iFixit)

When young people are taught to undervalue literacy as a life skill, they are being cruelly misled. (Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves)

Students and teachers need the terminology of grammar so they can discuss sentences easily. (Brock Haussamen, author of Grammar Alive!)

The first of these quotes is primarily about bad writing, which has a potential relationship to grammar but isn’t quite the same thing. The second is about a spelling error. The third is about literacy in general, which is a related but qualitatively different subject. The terminology to which the fourth refers is sometimes problematic (see the quarrel resulting from my post on the subjunctive), but in any case, the terms are surely secondary to the concepts.

This central part of the movie has some great material, especially from John McWhorter, about the efficacy of learning grammar; it also contains some inspired scenes with youngsters. But the usual whining about the good old days, before “mediocrity” became “good,” left this viewer fatigued.

The film wraps up with what is called the “Standard English Debate.” There is a bit of a debate here, and it heats up, particularly when Aram deKoven of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire agonizes over a term to replace the odious Standard and Kendall King of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities declares that “in no place in the world do well-paid, high status people not speak what’s considered the standard.” But we end on a note of apparent harmony, with the naysayers out of the picture and the remaining talking heads agreeing that learning Standard English “tears down walls,” “facilitates commerce,” and is “not about whiteness,” “not about being part of an elite club” but “about being able to communicate clearly.”

Look, I’m in the movie. I’m an avid—nay, rabid—Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrammer. And I loved the kids moving parts of sentences around by manipulating differently shaped and colored blocks. But there are debates, more than one of them, that aren’t quite so easily resolved. Maybe a movie, with its need for a wrap-up conclusion, can’t capture those debates. Or maybe the best thing is to download the movie yourself, and then we can have at it.