Good Grammar Makes You Smarter


A few weeks back, Jon Reiss suggested six books on writing in his weekly BB column, The Freelance Life. Some commenters were unimpressed by his choice to include The Elements of Style, better known as Strunk and White. One wrote:

Friends don’t let friends get mixed up by Strunk & White. It’s outdated, inconsistent, needlessly peevish, and often just plain wrong. It contributes to an educational culture wherein people mistake existentials for passives, wouldn’t recognize a subjunctive to save their life, and are inchoately afraid of split infinitives in the same way some people are afraid of spiders or clowns. Just Say No.


As an editor I have to disagree. Strongly. I don’t follow every prescriptive in Strunk and White (neither does the AP Stylebook, nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage). I find the construction “Charles’s hat” to be visually awkward and I hate a serial comma. However. When I meet a new writer, she pitches me fantastic story ideas, and is funny, smart and articulate over coffee and then delivers a story riddled with semicolon meltdowns and the misuse of it’s-its and then-than, my heart sinks. I think less of her. And I know other editors will, too. Reading Strunk and White could have prevented that.

I'm not proud of this.

Writers who fancy themselves free-spirited artists outside the bounds of conventional punctuation and grammar often position themselves against Strunk and White, and grammar rules in general. At one time I stood proudly in that camp, waving a comma-less banner of linguistic freedom. “Faulkner didn’t use a semicolon,” I would bray at my high school English teacher. “Why do we have to learn this stuff, can’t we just write?” Never one to easily rile–this is a man who led 29 high school juniors and seniors in a declining manufacturing town with a median household income of $28,500 a year through As I Lay Dying, in a non-honors, non-leveled English class, and got the vast majority of us to understand it, and even like it–he simply replied, “Ms. Griffin, when you can write like Faulkner, you may dispense with the semicolon. I will let you know when you get there.” He was a huge fan of Strunk and White and I stole the copy I still have from his classroom.

I was thinking about all this as I was reading “The Writing Revolution,” an article by Peg Tyre in the most recent issue of The Atlantic. Tyre profiles New Dorp High School on Staten Island. After struggling to raise student test scores for years, with little success, Deirdre DeAngelis, New Dorp’s principal, came to the conclusion that bad writing was holding her students back. She and her staff discovered that their students had been taught to write during an educational moment in which elementary school English instruction was more about writing memoirs, stories and poetry than learning the parts of speech. As a result, students didn’t know how to use words like although, for, nor, however and despite. These conjunctions and prepositions are the workhorses in complex sentences; they convey relationships between ideas, thoughts, objects and actions. Once New Dorp students learned how to use the English language to express their thoughts and opinions, test scores went up, yes, but the students’ ideas also become more complex and nuanced.

All that freestyle writing that elementary school students have been doing is based on the theory that children will just figure out how to write well if they write a lot, just as neuro-normal children will learn to speak the language spoken around them without formal instruction. The writing corollary seems to not only be false, but by not learning how to properly and subtly use the English language, children are not learning how to think complex and subtle thoughts.

If fully understanding how to use a conjunction or a preposition can markedly improve the quality of thought, just think how much better writing, and the thinking that goes along with it, could be following composition principles from Strunk and White like, “Avoid a succession of loose sentences,” or “Express coordinate ideas in similar form.” As it turns out, proper use of a semicolon doesn’t simply make you seem smarter; fully understanding and employing proper grammar may actually make you smarter.

5 Responses

  1. Sam Raker -

    You’re aware that linguistic relativity (which is what you’re advocating here with your whole “proper semicolon use makes you think better” argument) hasn’t been proven in the 200-odd years it’s been floating around? In fact, more like the opposite ( and the sources cited there.) There have been a few studies proving a kind of very weak, domain-specific version of the theory, but those have all dealt specifically with spoken language ( If you’ve found studies that show specifically that instruction that improves students’ abilities to conform to Strunkian standards also makes their thinking “more complex and nuanced,” I’d love to see them. Importantly, HS test scores DO NOT COUNT: improving students’ abilities to conform to arbitrary standards will naturally improve the results when they’re tested on those same arbitrary standards.

    I don’t mean to keep hammering this same point, but this kind of outmoded standards-for-standards’-sake conformity serves more to reinforce pre-existing social and political inequalities and give cranky pundits reasons to dismiss “kids these days” and minorities without seriously considering what they have to say. I’d like to think that the answer is not “fixing” the powerless to be more like the powerful, but rather trying to break down the entrenched systems that reinforce these inequalities in the first place.

  2. Dutch -

    Sam, does learning to write clearly, articulately, and
    persuasively count for nothing in students’ lives? Unstructured, untutored self-expression
    may be fine while young people are still in school, where the stakes are relatively
    low, but it’s a distinct disservice to send students out into the wider world
    without some notion of the benefits to be gained by mastering the higher
    reaches of, yes, “standard, formal” English prose. It’s not a matter of “standards
    for standards’ sake,” it’s a matter of giving students the tools they’ll need
    to participate at the highest levels of culture should they choose to do so. Does
    writing to a higher standard help students think? Who knows? I happen to
    believe it does (writing is a form of thinking, and it helps to have a broad
    array of useful tools at the ready), but knowing the mechanics of good writing
    certainly helps writers express themselves with greater force, clarity, and
    artfulness. Oscar Peterson didn’t learn to improvise as brilliantly as he did by
    bashing away at the piano keys indiscriminately—years of music theory and
    practice lay behind everything he accomplished.

    Clear, compelling, well-structured prose is prized for good
    reason: in a free society it’s the most powerful means we have of connecting
    with other human minds and participating in the highest realms of science,
    business, academia, and the arts. Inarticulate self-expression, no matter how
    passionate, is not much valued beyond high school. And waiting
    around for “social and political inequalities” to be leveled is worse than a
    pipe dream; it is, in effect, to deny students the chance to flourish in our
    society. Think of it in terms of one
    student, John. Imagine offering him this advice: “John, you just keep plugging
    away and saying what you think; don’t bother learning society’s arbitrary
    standards of ‘acceptable’ English. We [the well-educated, who have your best
    interests at heart] are hard at work advocating the dismantling of the entrenched
    system that’s keeping you down; be patient, let us do our work, and soon the
    rich, powerful elites will come around to valuing your standard of expression.
    Just hold on, John…hold on!”

    Is that really what’s best for John?


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)