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Noam Chomsky Writes

to Mrs. Davis About


Grammar and Education
4, 198-t
Dear Mrs. Da,is;
Thanks \ery much for sending me your paper and discussion
commems, which I read with much imerest. I hesitate to express a
judgment on the main question you are addressing. simply from
lack of rele\am knowledge. My uninformed guess would be that
the study of grammar would ha\e little detectable effect on writing
ability, but I think it should be taught for Hs 0""'11 intrinsic interest
and imponance. I don't see how any person can truly be called
'"educated" '>''ho doesn't know the elements of sentence structure,
or who doesn't understand the nacure of a relative clause, a passive
construction, and so on. Furthermore, if one is going to discuss
literature, including here what studems '>'Tite themselves, and to
come to understand how it is '>'Titten and why, these conceptual
tools are indispensable.
For these purposes. I think traditional grammar so-called (say.
the grammar of Jespersen l remains today a very impressive and
useful basis for such reaching. I canr see any reason for teaching
structural grammars of English. or for reaching transformational
grammar in the manner of some instructional books that I have
seen (I really don't know the literacure well at all), which simply
amoum to memorizing meaningless formulas.
If contemporary linguistics is to be taught (I think it should
be). it is in a different comext. I do think it offers an incomparable
avenue to understanding the nature of the human mind. It also can
pro\'ide students with a way to understand how science works.
There are questions that are. or should be. fascinating and puzzling:
for example, why does the sentence "who did the boys expect to
see them" allow the interpretation with them referring to the boys,
'>'hile the sentence "the boys expect co see them" does not. Or why
do the sentences "john is too stubborn to talk to Bill" and "john is
rou stubborn to talk ro" have different "understood subjects" for
"'talk ro" (John" in the case; someone other than john in the
. .;b l:'duuaiull. lutume Si.\'11!1!11. .\'umber 3. Ocrober 198-i 16:;
Englisb Ed.w.:a!I011
second). And mvriad others. These are simple, but very puzzling
facts. Everv child has command of a huge mass of data of this son.
It is also possible to develop explanatory theories of a rather non-
trivial son that explain some of these facts, and ro do so wt:hour
reson to higher mathematics or orher tools not avatlable
ro the student (or reacher, generally). In thts way. one mtghr be
introduced into rhe marvellous world of inquiry in which one learn_s
to wonder about the nature of what seem. superficially, robe obn-
ous phenomena, and to ask why they are the way they are. and
come up with answers. This is an experience generally lackmg tn
the srudv of the sciences unless the instruction is really done
well. These are all reasons for studyin_g contemporary
grammar-as a branch of science, which deals of
central human concern and which happens to be fatrly accesstble,
as compared. say, with quamum physics. I doubt that it '>viii improve
writing style, but it could help srudems learn how (and why) w
think about hard and intriguing questtons, and to de,elop the
natural curiosirv that is so often dulled by what we (perhaps mis-
leadingly) call .:education.'' . .
Amwav, for what it is worth, my own \'lew ts that you should
go on reaching traditional grammar, e\en if educational research
shows no effect on ability to write. That should nor be the mam
goal of such reaching, in my view.
Sincerely,
Noam Chomsky
Letter from Noam Chomsky to the Editor
March 21, 1984
Dear Professor Berger,
. In response to your letter of March 15, I suppose I :vould ha,e
no objection to your publishing my letter ro Mrs. Davrs, though I
would appreciate it if you would make it clear t.har it was an
informal letter. not written with an eye to publrcat10n. As rndtcated
in the letter, I would nor want people ro be misled into thinking
that I have any special insight into the question of grammar-
reaching and writing or any special competence to talk abou1 the
matter. Quire frankly, I doubt that others are in a better posn1on,
apart from teachers rhemsekes. \vho really have expenence m the
matter.
Sincerely yours,
Noam Chomsh.y