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Research on Grammar

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The late Robert J. Connors once called it "the various bodies of knowledge and prejudice called 'grammar.'" For more on the knowledge part, see below:

Selected Research

Connors, Robert J. "Grammar in American College Composition: An Historical Overview." The Territory of Language: Linguistics, Stylistics, and the Teaching of Composition. Ed. Donald A.McQuade. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986. 3-22.

Robert J. Connors, who co-authored Andrea Lunsford's early research on the frequency of error, also studied the history of English grammar instruction in the United States. When did American schools switch from teaching Latin grammar to teaching English grammar? Who invented and popularized sentence-diagramming? How did the rise of structural linguistics in the 1950s affect ideas about grammar? In his inimitable style, Connors treated these questions and more.

Connors, Robert J., and Andrea A. Lunsford. "Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research." College Composition and Communication 39.4 (Dec. 1988): 395-409.


Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." College English 47.2 (1985): 105-127.

In this classic essay, Patrick Hartwell offers five definitions of grammar that elucidate the many ways the term gets used: from an internalized set of linguistic rules to a meta-awareness and stylistic choice.  His varied definitions suggest the co-existence of multiple literacies that undermine an approach to teaching grammar focused exclusively on correctness.

Lunsford, Andrea A. and Karen J. Lunsford. "'Mistakes Are a Fact of Life': A National Comparative Study." College Composition and Communication 59.4 (Jun. 2008): 781-806.

Stanford's own Andrea Lunsford, Louise Hewett Nixon Professor of English, is a leader in the study of error in writing. Her long-term quantitative research has revealed shifting patterns of error as technologies and rhetorical situations change. Among Professor Lunsford's findings (summarized in Top 20 form here):

  1. Student papers today are longer and more complex than they were 20 years ago, yet there has been no significant increase in the overall rate of error.
  2. Although word-processing tools have advanced substantially, they are responsible for the most common error in student writing today: using the wrong word, spelled correctly.

Micciche, Laura. "Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar." College Composition and Communication 55.4 (Jun. 2004): 716-737.

What do you think of when you think of the word "grammar"? Laura Micciche argues most people think of formal grammar: "Usually, our minds go to those unending rules and exceptions, those repetitive drills and worksheets..." (720). This formal grammar is "the deadly kind of grammar," the one that makes us anxious. Drawing on Martha Kolln's idea of "rhetorical grammar," Micciche argues that grammar doesn't have to be deadly: it can give a writer more powerful choices, and thus make writing and communicating more satisfying and more pleasurable.

Williams, Joseph M. "The Phenomenology of Error." College Composition and Communication 32.2 (May 1981): 152-168.

Why do some grammatical errors seem to cause so much venom and rage? Why is a misuse of the word "hopefully" considered an "atrocity"? Joseph M. Williams examined this question in this still-relevant 1981 article. Williams is also the author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Longman).