While the discussion was a little sidetracked here, it was really good, and made me think. It especially got me thinking about the quality of research behind the argument to leave off marking/correcting grammar on student writing.
So I've been looking for recent research on the subject, and to tell the truth, I'm not finding much so far.
There's TONS of work on second language acquisition. And there's a fair bit of work from the 1980s or so, mostly on teaching grammar. There's some work on teaching in secondary contexts (high school in the US, but also elsewhere).
But I'm not having huge luck with finding helpful stuff that's recent, college level, and English primary language learners.
One thing I've learned is that this is a hugely complex issue on a lot of levels, including levels I don't always think about.
I thought I'd share a couple of helpful essays here, and see what you find and think.
First off, I've found Patrick Hartwell's "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar" (originally published in College English 47.2 (February 1985), though I'm reading it in Victor Villanueva's Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (2nd edn, Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003. 205-233).
Hartwell does a sort of meta-study, looking at what other researchers have found more than on his own. What really helps me here is that he distinguishes different sorts of grammar. These are hard to lay out (and I wish he'd done a better job), but here goes:
1) "the set of formal patterns in which the words of a language are arranged in order to convey larger meanings" (209; here Hartwell is quoting W. Nelson Francis from 1954). So that's probably what most of us think of as grammar. It's the whole stuff we've internalized about patterns and word order.
2) Linguistic description (209; again, Hartwell quotes Francis here)
3) "Linguistic etiquette" (again, quoting Francis). This category seems to be where we get the admonition not to use "ain't" and such. Hartwell notes that this category is "usage" rather than "grammar" in a formal sense (210).
4) "School grammar" (210-211), which Hartwell distinguishes from #2 because it's not done in terms of linguistic description, but rather seems to be prescriptive, and based on the sorts of grammar text books that gave me nightmares as a little kid.
5) Stylistic grammar (211). I'm not quite sure how this is different from the etiquette one, though. It seems that Hartwell defines it as "grammatical terms used in the interest of teaching prose style" (211). So maybe it's also tied into #4.
At any rate, I think what's important here is that we who teach writing aren't necessarily linguists or really good at grammar, but rather we're competent at usage and etiquette. It's worth thinking, then, as we mark grammar about what we're marking. Are we marking actual grammar problems, or are we marking our regional (or other) preferences for usage?
Hartwell concludes his article by making two conclusions: First, his review of the literature suggests that teaching grammar doesn't teach students to write better, and second, his review suggests that we've been (well, in 1987) reinventing the same square wheel for a long time, and we should stop.
Now for a grammar question for you: Here's a usage thing that sticks with me. My native usage is to write "X is different than Y." But I remember distinctly being corrected in a grad grammar type class, and told that I was wrong, and the proper usage is "X is different from Y." But I've also now heard people use "X is different to Y." (I think of that as a British usage, but I don't know.)
What would you do? Which is correct and why?
Let me know if you've found good articles, please.