Universities and Colleges
Request Access
Day One
Review Copies
Custom Solutions
Day One
Day One
Author's Corner
Universities and Colleges

Thomson Nelson > Higher Education > Conversations about Writing - Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In > Readings - Public Grammar and Private Grammar

Readings - Public Grammar and Private Grammar: The Social Orientation of Grammar

Brock Haussamen

Discussions of grammar are filled with polarities.   From its long history as both a subject of the schoolroom and an object of scholarly study, grammar leads to debates between prescriptive and descriptive, linguistic grammar and traditional grammar, rules (traditional) versus rules (linguistic), grammar and usage, correctness and error, Standard and vernacular, and so on.   I mention these here in order to brace the reader for the fact that I'm about to introduce yet another duality, public grammar versus private grammar.
         At one level the need for these new terms arises from the word grammar itself—that resiliently popular (the word, if not the subject) but maddeningly ambiguous term.   The term refers most generally and consistently to the structure of the sentence and the categories of words and word groups that make up that structure.   But we speak of this structure and these categories as existing not only in the language itself (the grammar of this sentence), but also in the head that produces the language (each person's intuitive grammatical ability) and in certain studies of language (a grammar book).   Grammar can refer to language as it exists or to language as people believe it ought to be.   Because it seems unlikely that anyone is about to stop using the word in some of these senses so that it can stand more clearly for the others, we have to choose its modifiers carefully.
         What all the current modifiers of the term grammar lack, I would argue, is reference to a crucial aspect of the word's meaning, and that is its social context.    Thanks to the growing body of insights from linguistics, the contrast sharpens between what we know about how each individual processes language and, at the other extreme, the conventions of written, public literacy codified by traditional grammar, usage, and mechanics.   We touch on these contrasts countless times during discussions of grammar in education, and we need better handles to get a grip on the topic. When teachers with a relatively traditional view of grammar discuss grammar in the classroom, their concern is with the conventions of literacy handed down over generations.   (They say, "Many students can write creatively, but their grasp of grammar is weak.   They write fragments and run-ons, and they don't understand the parts of speech well enough to correct those errors.")   On other hand, when linguistically-oriented grammarians talk about grammar in the classroom, they are thinking of the individual students' intuitive language ability and of building on that ability through heightened awareness of language.   (They say, "Students already know grammar, and they have known it since they started talking.   But we can teach them about grammar, so they will have the language to discuss language and to understand how it works.")   Usually, both parties fail to appreciate the very different social dimensions of the two approaches to grammar.
         The failure is understandable.   We have no ready terms for pointing to the place on the social continuum—from the wiring of the solitary brain, to the individual in communication with family and friends, to the cultural continuities of literacy—where any particular aspect of grammar lies.
         We have, of course, the two terms prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar —referring respectively to the rules of correctness and error and to the patterns of language as it actually takes place, warts and all.   These terms make a thoroughly vital distinction, it is true; but as instruments for clarifying grammatical discussions, they suffer from a fatal handicap.   The words appear to be themselves descriptive, neutral, objective—but unfortunately they are not.   In actual usage, descriptive grammar is a positive term, prescriptive grammar a negative one.   The terms are usually used by descriptivists to distance themselves from prescription.   There are revealing exceptions. Last year on the ATEG (Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar) listserv one participant, an editor, asked about preferences regarding a certain grammatical construction; mentioned what Quirk, Greenbaum, et al. had to say on the subject; and then concluded with the point that the Comprehensive Grammar , as a descriptive grammar, doesn't hold the same weight for some people that a prescriptive grammar does—and could anyone direct him to a prescriptive grammar that dealt with the issue?   At this slander on the authority of descriptive grammar, a brief cyber-uproar ensued.
          The incident revealed how uneven and unsuited the terms are as names that both parties use.   The labels do not operate on the kind of equal semantic footing that such a pair as Democrat and Republican do, words that both political camps can accept comfortably to identify both themselves and the opposite party.   Descriptive and prescriptive share the kind of marked contrast that characterizes a pair such as citizen and foreigner , terms that label a difference almost entirely from one point of view, that express a strong preference, and that are spoken and written mostly by the group that holds that point of view and preference.   We need terms that will do for grammar what Republican and Democrat do for politics—label broad, socially-oriented contrasts in ways that are widely acceptable.
         Many linguists think that the distinction between grammar and usage ought to do the job.   To linguists, grammar refers to syntactic structure, while all the do's and don'ts that students, teachers, and the public at large worry about fall under the category of usage , the customary and acceptable practices of language.   But students, teachers, and the public at large don't often use the term usage .   They use grammar .   They wonder if their grammar is correct.   How is it that grammar has become the umbrella term for the wide range of language norms?   I think it is because the word grammar connotes great authority, while the concept of usage conveys almost none.   Usage connotes ordinary use, and that is precisely what people inquiring about correctness usually think they want to avoid.    Grammar , on the other hand, means to them an underlying rightness in language that is fundamental and compelling and that skilled speakers and writers are in touch with.
         In coining the term public grammar , I accept this popular use of the word grammar because public grammar is fundamentally grammar as most people—the public, not linguists—see it.   Public grammar is the set of norms by which public language is judged; usage, the acceptability of particular words, is a subset of those norms. Let me clarify that by public grammar I do not mean language as the public actually uses it.   I mean the expectations governing the formal features of language, written and spoken, when it is used in public.   Grammar in this phrase is not descriptive but prescriptive—grammar and usage as they appear in the handbooks and as we apply them in the editing phase of writing.   This grammar is public in the sense that it codifies the conventions of the standard dialect that our society approves for general use and defines as literacy. In 1985, Patrick Hartwell, in an essay entitled “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” defined five types of grammar.   His Grammar 3 was the dogmas of usage and language etiquette, the do's and don'ts, and his Grammar 4 referred to the grammar that is presented in traditional school textbooks.   These two types constitute what I am calling public grammar.   This public grammar describes an idealized product; it says nothing about process.   And it is no more or less theoretical than the traditional generalizations about parts of speech and sentence structure (such as "the number of the verb must agree with the number of the subject") that govern prescription.
         My stepdaughter reports that in her fifth-grade class, she tries to stay out of "grammar jail."   If she and her classmates don't indent a paragraph or if they misuse a and an, their picture goes up on the board in the appropriate jail cell.   I wince when I hear the term, but Meredith says the teacher makes it fun (Meredith never went to jail, though)   and it's only one of the many ways her class learns about writing.   Public grammar is the grammar that, when violated, can land you in grammar jail.
         In contrast to the broad language landscape connoted by public grammar, private grammar is the view of language at the level of the individual or of the social sphere that the individual would designate loosely as private.   The remaining three of Hartwell's five types seem to me to fall under this heading: Grammar 1, the grammatical ability inside our heads; Grammar 2, the study of Grammar 1—that is, the field of linguistics; and Grammar 5, rhetorical and stylistic grammar.   That is, private grammar refers to the process of language production and comprehension, including the nuances of language use associated with stylistics and rhetoric and with local dialect.   It also refers to our theoretical knowledge of these processes.   I'm not thinking of private here in the sense of assertively closed off from exposure to others, as in a private opinion or private club, but in the less intentional and more territorial sense of merely belonging to and concerning the individual, as in private joke or private citizen .   Private grammar is structure and usage and the theory of language production and perception when the focus is on the individual.
         The concept of private grammar is important because it names a crucial characteristic in the linguistic approach to grammar that differentiates it from traditional grammar and that usually passes unnoticed.   Traditional grammar is quite evidently public; its judgments are cultural and social judgments, with the histories of literacy and of public education as its credentials.   But we are not as quick to recognize the orientation around the individual as a distinguishing feature of modern linguistics and linguistic grammar.   The debate over whether teaching grammar can improve students' writing seems to linger on in part, I think, because educators seldom realize how different the two approaches to grammar and to "improving writing" can be.   Private grammar, with its focus on the individual's language sense and the making of   meaning through language, stands at practically the opposite pole from editing a text so that it conforms to a set of public specifications.
         But public and private grammar are not completely separate.   Between the two, inevitably, there lies a contact zone, an area of overlap and ambiguity   (as when we drive a car down the highway and are thus out in public within a private space).    Privateness and publicness come in varying degrees.   Informal or vernacular language sometimes makes its way to a large audience in a formal setting, and when it does so, the private grammar of its conventions, usage, and structure becomes more public, though not necessarily mainstream public.   Rap music, for example, places Black English Vernacular in the position of a public though still controversial grammar.   From the internet, certain idioms, abbreviations, and visual symbols, such as ":)", move from the private telegraphy of e-mail to a more conventionalized and thus public status, at least for the time being.   Sentence fragments, usually seen as errors in the public grammar of conventional prose, find acceptability in the pseudo-private grammar of advertising and even poetry.
         Some activity in the contact zone moves in the opposite direction, when public grammar takes up a position in the narrower sphere of private grammar.   For example, Spanish, the public language in many countries around the world, serves as the private grammar of many Latino homes and neighborhoods in North America.   In such instances, the contact zone between public and private grammar is fluid and complex, and it is the topic of much grammar discussion.
         Why should we bother with this distinction between public and private grammar?   I argue that we need these two terms—in addition to all our other terminology—for two reasons.    The first is that, unlike the other pairs of grammar terms, these terms place various aspects of grammar in a social context, and the added specificity can facilitate discussions of grammar.   For example, two teachers consulting about a child's writing problem might concur that she is using a certain verb form in her private grammar and that the pattern explains the error appearing in her public grammar (and their discovery may help the child learn to identify and control the error when she wants or needs to).    Classroom discussions about the third-person pronoun problem (“Every student has a right to their opinion”) might arrive at conclusions that are both realistic about formal conventions (and their resistance to change) and respectful of everyday conversation:   singular they is common and acceptable in private grammar but conflicts with a singular antecedent in public grammar.
         A broader example: At the Conference on College Communication and Composition, 16th March 2001, I heard Peter Elbow argue that vernaculars should become more accepted as styles within academic discourse in order to open up that discourse to wider ethnicity ("Writing in the Vernacular").   He was arguing, in effect, that public grammar should embrace a wider range of private grammars.   Casting his point in terms of public and private grammars highlights some of the very real obstacles to such a development, inasmuch as public and private grammar serve such different functions and audiences.
         The second general advantage in using these terms is that they would make discussions of grammar not only more specific as to social context but also, as a result, less disparaging.   Descriptivists might have less reason to think of correctness as narrow-minded purism if they could conceive of correctness as the public grammar of a literate heritage.   Traditionalists might feel less inclined to think of minority languages or dialects as some failure of intelligence or as blatant refusal to adapt to North American culture if they could think of them as skillful meaning-making through the private language and grammar of home and family. [i]   Together, both genres of grammarians could collaborate in giving students confidence that they have already mastered their private grammar and that they are now engaged in the challenging task of mastering (and perhaps eventually changing and enriching) their society's public grammar.   The terms private grammar and public grammar can help both to clarify and to dignify many of the conflicted language situations with which children and adults contend.


[i] The private-public distinction may prove especially valuable in understanding the educational needs of linguistic minorities in North America. See, for example, Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory —Rodriguez, in fact, uses the words public and private to describe the painful transition when his parents, at the prompting of the teachers from his school, began speaking English with him at home instead of Spanish (16, 32).

Works Cited

Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of
          Grammar." College English 47 (1985): 105-127.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan
          Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
          Language. London: Longman, 1985.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of
          Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.


Student Resources

Bare Bones Writer's Grammar

Glossary: Key Words for a Writer's Grammar

Answer to Question in Chapter 5

Readings - The Place of Run-Ons and Dashes in Writing

Readings - Public Grammar and Private Grammar

Feedback Sheets

Link to Editor Software

MLA Documentation

Reading, Writing, Reference Links