Conference: ‘The New Leaving Certificate English Curriculum’
November 1999

Conference Paper: ‘The Craft So Long To Learn’?
The Writing Problem and University English
Dr Robert Mohr

When we think of the writing problem we now face at all levels of education, we tend to cast back for its aetiology to the ‘cultural revolution’ that erupted around 1963, the appearance of The Beatles and the second half of the sixties.  However, another view holds that “the revolution began shortly after World War I with empirical demonstrations that traditional grammar, as conventionally taught, had relatively little effect on writing and was negligible value in improving oral usage.”  Such writers as Sterling A. Leonard and Charles C. Fries showed that common usage and even the best writers did not slavishly adhere to the traditional rules.  

This post-war critique, in turn, had its roots in the late 1800s in the challenges made by such scholars as Henry Sweet and Otto Jespersen against traditional grammatical analysis of English.  Traditional grammar had solidified in the eighteenth century in response to cultural conditions of the times, taking its definitions from a Latinate grammar. The tower of grammar was seriously shaken when behavioural psychologists took hold of the problem by looking at actual spoken language in a ‘structuralist’ approach.  Then, while collecting samples of actual spoken usage, lexicographers and dialect geographers began to question rules of usage in conventional school texts. And when the transformational grammarians began to demonstrate the fluidity of structure, the whole edifice fell. It was not a sudden fall at a clear point in the 1950s.  Nor did the practice of teaching a thorough traditional grammar stop in that decade. I was taught how to parse or diagram sentences in school in 1965. In the 50s, the foundations of traditional grammar had been shaking for over fifty years and, to us today, the shaking has been happening for over a hundred years. Is this shake-up for good or ill?

One viewpoint: The final upheaval of the late 1960s finished the painful cultural work of shedding the tyrannical bondage of a prescriptive Latinate grammar that paralysed student writers.  As was hoped, students were freed to express themselves ‘naturally’. We certainly do value freedom of expression; therefore, this shaking is very good. Yet surrounding the handful of good examples of emancipated student writing, don’t we witness a groping, formless expression from the students?  

Another viewpoint: A Sociology lecturer complains that he spends the bulk of his time and energy correcting the form of student writing and cannot attend to the content.
“But what about my ideas?” the student pleads.
The reply: “I cannot access your ideas because the poor writing obscures them.”

This exchange is common to the point of becoming ritual comedy.  After reading a set of twenty-five seminar essays, a member of a Politics department attests that three of the essays are very well written.  The rest lack organisation, basic conventional sentence structure and, therefore, clear expression of thought. Too often, as one English lecturer testifies, students do not know what resources will help them to correct the poor writing that they have been told to set right.  They do not know where to go for help. They continue to make the same errors in writing, and so their communication and marks suffer. It seems that, in freeing student writers from the bondage of too many rules, the revolution has removed all grammatical knowledge from the students’ minds and left them grammatically rudderless.

This grammatical formlessness troubles every university department in both the Arts and Sciences.  A thesis director in a Regional and Urban Planning department asked me to give a series of lectures on writing to the postgraduates who were just about to begin writing their theses.  Recently, tutors across the faculties at UCD attended a workshop I gave in marking student writing. At the end, some remarked that they would need to learn more about the structure of writing, of language itself, to mark student essays in the way I had presented.  They all agreed that the problem was structural and that student thinking on paper lacked clarity because it lacked form.

When formless writing appears in masses, the litany of blame begins.  The university lecturers turn to blame the secondary teachers for not teaching pupils to write, or to speak well for that matter.  “This is not our job”, say the third level lecturers, especially in English departments. It is easy to see the comic chain reaction.  The secondary teachers are not listening because they have turned to blame the primary teachers for not teaching parts of speech and basic grammatical structure.  However, in desperation the primary teachers turn and point to the third level teacher-training institutions and cry out that they were not trained to teach grammar.  No one wants to take the blame; everyone is looking for a scapegoat. True? Not altogether true.

First, no one group or institution is responsible for the casualties of a long-term cultural adjustment.  Blame offers no cure nor does it address the real issue. Second, this conference has been called by the NAES (National Association of English Studies) and the ATE (Association of English Teachers) in order to look responsibly at changes in the secondary curriculum, as those changes are dictated by the new Leaving Certificate Syllabus, and particularly at the writing problem as it spans both secondary and tertiary levels.  A senior lecturer at a teacher-training college said to me that we need to begin to find language to talk about the writing problem. We need to define it, discuss it and decide whether it has crisis proportions. We need to ask whether it is remediable, and can we stake out an area of writing that everyone agrees should be taught?

I see two questions here.  First, do we have a writing crisis of overwhelming proportions within English studies?  Second, is a manageable remedy for the writing problem within reach? Or to put the question another way, “Is the craft so long to learn?”

Let’s take the first question: Do we have a writing crisis of overwhelming proportions within English studies?  When we look at the writing problem, we see connections with other weak spots in contemporary culture. We notice a lack of critical thinking in third level students (in the population as a whole, one might say).  We find passive readers, who have an impoverished sense of words and a nearly total ignorance of language structure, and not just of English. We encounter among students a poor historical sense and an almost aggressive dismissal of literary sensibilities that extend beyond the immediately popular range of acceptability.  So one might find Fifth Year secondary students today who have little patience for Emma, or anything from the nineteenth century or, forbid, earlier.  

A few years ago a group of Third Year university students in a literature tutorial became impatient with the emotional problems of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath:  “Those sound like my mother’s problems; we’ve gone past all that.” I asked whether they could imaginatively enter this historical moment of emotional struggle. “Why bother?” was the answer.  “Well, what about the artistry of language?” Blank faces. At this point the two poets faded into the background. I was witnessing an indifference to the language of the imagination and, under the influence of indifference, an alarming lack of empathy.

As we pull at one problem, writing, a whole cultural web moves, and we feel the same mixture of panic and despondency that we feel when we approach a Shakespeare play critically.  As we try to isolate one of its thematic images, we find that the image is connected to everything else in the play, which is a whole world. The entire text moves as we pull at the one image.  How does one isolate a Shakespearean image from other elements in a play; how do we isolate the writing problem from the entire culture? Once we acknowledge the interconnectedness of writing and the whole culture, we need to define just what we’re talking about when we say ‘writing problem’.

At the moment students do not know very much about language.  When, during a lecture on subordinate adverb clauses, I asked a theatre full of First Year university English students for a show of hands of those who know what an adverb is, a simple part of speech, no one moved.  They were frozen. One might say this freeze indicated resistance, yet I thought at that moment that it meant they didn’t know. I’ve seen eyes dart from side to side at the word ‘adjective’. They do not know very much about the structure of language because we do not teach them about the how language technically works.  Can you imagine university-level music students responding this way to a basic question about musical structure: what is a key, what is counterpoint? Oh, that’s technical. Is it really so important? What about my musical expression? (It lacks form.)

I queried whether any government publications would signal a change in the curricular rules around grammar, and I found a change in the Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools between the volumes that covered the years 1990/91 and the years 1992/93.  Grammar is prescribed in Junior Certificate English programmes (not in the Leaving) in every volume before the 1992/93 volume, from which it is dropped.  In every volume prior to 1992/93, the introduction to the Intermediate Certificate courses states about English study in general:

The aims of the prescribed courses are:–
  1. to stimulate the pupils to think, to speak and to write correctly;
  2. to elicit the pupils’ sincere response to their own experience of life and literature;
  3. to cultivate in the pupils an understanding of and an interest in good literature;
  4. to teach the pupils certain skills which are essential for effective use of the  English language.

In 1992/93 this statement is dropped, and a note says, rather, “in the case of the subjects…English…the examination in 1993 and 1994 will be based on the new Junior Certificate syllabuses in those subjects which have been issued to school authorities.” (27)  So the syllabus had been changed, and dropped was the old description of ‘Ancillary Skills’ (The description of Lower Course and Higher Course differ only in level of difficulty):

Ancillary Skills:

  1. Grammar and Usage:
  1. Analysis of the sentence; subject and predicate; functions of clauses, phrases and words in the sentence.
  2. Correction of common errors.
  3. Exercises in punctuation, etc.
  1. Writing of formal letters and simple reports. Description of familiar objects and processes.

It seems that the new syllabus was reflecting the changes that had already taken place.  Question:  should pupils passing from secondary school into college know the eight parts of speech and basic grammatical terminology?

A good retort to that question is another.  Do you think that knowing the parts of speech or basic grammar will make a person write better?  That question has been played out. When we observed that grammar did not teach anyone to compose but rather seemed to inhibit expression, we abandoned grammar for more holistic approaches.  Leave off the overbearing concern for rules and correctness, and young writers will find their own, valid form of expression. ‘Correct’ writing imposes a socio-political filter that keeps out those who do not belong to the conventional ruling class.  Conventions of correct English are fascist.

Fine.  We all reject tyrannical, undemocratic coercion.  And we want plurality and free expression for ourselves and for our students.  Yet what have we now in regard to writing? An amnesia has fallen over a venerable craft.  We lost the sextant and the sea stretches before us. Too much prescription had nearly killed the life of writing, so we dropped the prescripts.  And time has passed. Isn’t the need for form coming back to some deliberate form almost a hunger? Do people in your departments complain, do you complain, awfully about the bad writing?  Do students groan under the writing tasks assigned to them because they do not know how to make language work? They cannot express themselves but grow despondent, turn to the TV and ask, “Why bother?”  They have no rudder in the sea of language and they’re headed for the Scylla and Charybdis of the Leaving Certificate, of university exams, of professional life; they’re caught between the rocks and the whirlpool.  How will they steer through? The writing problem is overwhelming when you think how much depends upon skilled writing, from the Leaving Cert to business communication. The ignorance and despondency that surrounds the problem seems to extend into the entire culture.  Is this an exaggeration? Have I breached the limits of definition that I was trying to mark?

Students cannot write because they are ignorant of its craft, ignorant of the basic forms that a writer needs in order to practise the craft.  Perhaps the writing problem is not an overwhelming, impossible cultural problem, even though it has far-reaching effects. Perhaps the writing problem poses a more manageable challenge, like the challenge that an ignorance of musical structure poses to a musician who feels severely limited in composition.  The musician simply needs to study the structure of music enough to gain more facility with composition. This does not mean becoming a musicologist or a genius. It means getting some conscious control over musical structures and using them as tools with which to build a composition. So for the writer. Writers need to know how writing is built.  What are the names of the parts writers use, and how do writers put these parts together. How do the parts aid expression? Do some parts express in a different way from others? These are questions of composition that craftspeople ask in every art form, whether they compose music, paint pictures, build furniture, or write. All makers want to know how to make.  So now we come to that second question.  

Is a manageable remedy for the writing problem within reach?  This question poses another simple question: what does a writer need to know?  All grammar?  Not all. How to parse?  No, not in the old academic way.  We can come back to this issue of parsing.  In teaching writing, in streamlining the course work because of the brevity of class or lecture time, I have defined the essential components that writers need to learn in order to control sentences, to organise sentences into paragraphs and to structure an essay.  In order to promote competent writing, I should advocate the revival of an ‘applied grammar’ solely for the purpose of composition.

I had a brief and intriguing conversation with a linguist who said that eight parts of speech are not enough to define accurately all the basic forms of language in English.  We really need to name twelve parts of speech. Our conversation got interrupted, so I was left with this provocation to further delineate the structure of language. I am normally open to different ways of looking at language, yet I felt deeply defensive on this point.  Just at a time when we might revive writing with a handful of good grammatically-based structural tools, the academic voice clears itself and begins to expound the need for further defining, charting, cataloguing, parsing. I envisage pupils and students (as well as swathes of the business community) push heavily from their chairs and leave the room, the opportunity squandered on a pedantic indulgence.  

Not everyone who writes wants a thorough knowledge of how language works; not everyone who drives a car wants to know how all of the mechanical parts work.  Rather, we ought to ask what grammar a writer needs to know in order to write competently.   What ‘applied grammar’ do we actually need?

I have composed a course outline that can be adapted to various levels: Transition Year, Leaving Cert preparation, college, adult education. It is an applied grammar that touches on the three main structural components:  sentences, paragraphs, overall organisation.  Punctuation enters as appropriate to a particular sentence structure unit.


  1. Introduction:
    • The general principle of organisation: an overview of writing structure
    • Phrase and clause
    • The sentence core
    • Focus in the sentence
      • choosing subjects
      • choosing verbs
    • Focus in the paragraph and essay
  2. Coordination: balancing statements
    • The sentence:  coordinating conjunctions
    • The paragraph: coordinate sequence (the list)
    • The essay: coordinate sequence
  3. Subordination: hierarchies of thought
    • The sentence: the adverb clause and the subordinating conjunctions
    • transition words
    • The paragraph: subordinate sequence (from general to specific)
    • The essay: subordinate sequence (thought leads to thought)
    • The Mixed Sequence Paragraph
  4. The Mixed Sequence Paragraph
    • Internal development
    • Zoom in, zoom out
  5. The Adjective Clause and the Noun Clause
  6. The Verbal Phrase and the Absolute Phrase
  7. Parallel Structure
    • Apposition
    • Correlative conjunctions

Based on book: Robert Mohr, How to Write: Tools for the Craft, Dublin: UCD Press, 1998.