Last Revised 9/6/09
"KISS" -- The Case for "Stupid"?
The Parting of the Red Sea
1966, Private collection in New
Carol Gerten's Fine Art http://metalab.unc.edu/cgfa/
| "Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's,
had in his office a sign reading "K.I.S.S.," which, he was glad to tell
anyone, meant "Keep It Simple, Stupid." "Simple" does not have to mean
simpleminded. Keeping it simple means avoiding the complexity of too many
competing, confusing factors."
--David R. Williams. Sin Boldly!: Dr.
Dave's Guide to
Writing the College Paper. Cambridge: Perseus, 2000.
Lately a number of people have
scoured this site seeking the meaning of the acronym "KISS," or they have
simply written to ask what it means. Having learned that it stands for
"Keep It Simple, Stupid," some people have considered it to be insulting.
Since it is not my intention to insult readers, the acronym requires some
First of all, although many readers do not
seem to be aware of it, the acronym has a history. I was first made aware
of the acronym many years ago by my son's fifth grade teacher. It immediately
stuck, since it echoes Occam's razor, the widely known philosophical principle
that, in any given case, the simplest explanation -- the explanation that
requires the fewest number of rules and principles -- is the best. In the
1980's, when I was developing this approach to teaching grammar, "KISS"
was the obvious choice for a name. To see why, we need to look at the meaning
I recently heard Whoopie Goldberg say that
"stupid" is her least favorite word. Many people may agree with her. But
eliminating the word will not eliminate what it stands for, and, unable
to discuss what it stands for, we will, I would suggest, seriously hurt
our children (who are, I want to note, much more intelligent than they
are usually given credit for). Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online)
gives the following definitions for "stupid":
Etymology: Middle French stupide, from Latin stupidus,
from stupEre to be numb, be astonished -- more at TYPE
No one enjoys being called "slow of mind," but note that even that first
and most insulting definition refers to "unintelligent decisions" and "acting
in an unintelligent or careless manner." Stupidity is, in other words,
essentially a matter of choice. And choice is what the KISS Principle
emphasizes -- "Keep It Simple, Stupid" implies that we have a choice between
the simple and the complex (and confusing). And, like Occam's razor, it
suggests that the intelligent choice is the simple one. If we fail to keep
it simple, we are, in other words, stupid. As I will attempt to show, the
KISS Principle is fundamental, not only to KISS Grammar, but also to other
aspects of education.
1 a : slow of mind : OBTUSE b : given to unintelligent
decisions or acts: acting in an unintelligent or careless manner c : lacking
intelligence or reason : BRUTISH
2 : dulled in feeling or sensation : TORPID <still
from the sedative>
3 : marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking
or acting : SENSELESS
4 a : lacking interest or point b : VEXATIOUS, EXASPERATING
<this stupid flashlight won't work>
A Brief History of KISS Grammar
My interest in the teaching of grammar began
in the 1970's, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I
taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. (My degrees
are all in Russian language and literature.) My students were having problems
with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain
that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting
ideas -- "He went swimming; she did the dishes." The lessons never took,
and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the
problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem
was. "We can't," she told me, "identify clauses."
Clauses are one of the simplest and most fundamental
grammatical constructions, but, instead of helping students learn to recognize
them (and thus learn how they function), instruction in grammar has bombarded
students with hundreds of terms, many of which are poorly defined, and
many of which are totally useless. We have a choice here. We can focus
on the basic, simple, and meaningful, or we can continue to overwhelm students
with confusing terminology. If we opt for the second, are we not being
stupid? I named this approach "KISS" because the primary idea behind it
is to keep the required number of terms as limited in number as possible
while still enabling students to discuss all the important aspects of grammar
and style in any English sentence, including the most complicated.
Note that the KISS Principle here
refers to us as teachers, not to students. (I'll have more to say about
its importance for students later.) And it is a constant concern. The "KISS"
in the name of KISS Grammar is intended to remind me that whenever I consider
adding a construction or concept to the KISS toolbox, I need to have a
good reason. Otherwise, I am just adding confusion. As a simple example
of this, consider "transitive," "intransitive," and "linking" verbs.
These three categories are a result of the primary focus of traditional
grammar -- the placing of words into grammatical categories. But when we
look at verbs in context, the only way to tell if a verb is transitive,
intransitive, or linking is to examine the sentence pattern:
He grew quickly. (S / V = intransitive)
If, ultimately, we need to look at the sentence pattern, why do we need
"transitive," "intransitive," and "linking"? Of course, grammarians who
understand the terms claim that we need them -- but I have yet to see any
good reasons. On the other hand, these terms clearly add to the confusion.
A teacher on NCTE-Talk, arguing that we should teach grammar, stated that
we need to teach these "transient" and "intransient" verbs. Note
what has happened here. Poor choices (I will say stupid choices.) by the
supposedly educated (the teachers of teachers) has led to "dulled" "feeling
or sensation" among many teachers. Most instruction in grammar involves
too many terms, most of which are poorly defined. (See, for example, "Definitions
He grew tomatoes. (S / V / DO = transitive)
He grew tall. (S / V / PA = linking)
NCTE and the Teaching of Grammar
-- A Case Study in Educational Stupidity
I must admit that, when I gave it the name,
I did not realize just how appropriate KISS was (and still is) to the problems
in the teaching of grammar. In the Fall of 2000, I was invited by an NCTE
editor to submit a TRIP book manuscript on KISS Grammar to NCTE. "TRIP"
means "Theory and Research into Practice." Thus I was to review the theory
and research and then to show how it supports the KISS Approach. I was
already aware that, in 1985, NCTE had passed a resolution against the teaching
of grammar that is not supported by theory and research, but I had not
spent much time studying the research that supposedly supports that resolution.
Was I surprised!
Perhaps I missed it, but I never found a clear
bibliography of the specific research that "supports" that resolution.
Within the professional journals, the sources that were most often referred
to are two megastudies on the state of research in English composition.
These are known as The Braddock Report (1963) and The Hillocks
Report (1986). When I examined them closely, I could come to only one
conclusion -- their conclusions about grammar are simply stupid. Although
Braddock Report refers to other studies without specifically naming
them, it focusses on a study by Roland J. Harris. In fact, Braddock's conclusion
echoes that of Harris -- with one major difference. Harris concluded that
the study of grammatical terminology was confusing and not helpful.
(In his post-test, only one in five of his experimental sections scored
better than 50% on the grammar exam.) The logical conclusion to draw from
the Harris study, therefore, is that perhaps the terminology used in grammar
instruction should be both clarified and simplified. Braddock, however,
made the senseless conclusion that grammar should not be taught at all!
(See definition #3 of "stupid.")
The Braddock Report was bad, but The
Hillocks Report was worse. Simply referring to The Braddock Report,
Hillocks extends Braddock's general condemnation of teaching grammar
to include "identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagramming
of sentences, or other concepts of traditional school grammar." (138) And,
although Hillocks claims that his research found no support for
the teaching of grammar, he gives extremely high praise to a study by Lester
Faigley, claiming that the Faigly study proves that writing can be improved
without instruction in grammar. But if one looks carefully at the Faigley
study, one finds that the students spent a great deal of time learning
to identify, manipulate, and discuss the stylistic implications of, an
important, but limited number of grammatical concepts. Thus, Hillocks'
conclusion is not only invalid, it is obtuse. (See definition
#1 of "stupid.") [Click here for a
more detailed discussion of these and other studies.]
Most teachers have a lot to do. They
do not have the time to read the research carefully, and thus, given that
these studies were sanctioned by NCTE, teachers accepted them. The result,
however, was a very long lasting dulled and torpid sense of grammar.
(See definition #2 of "stupid.") Note that this is not
the fault of the teachers -- it is the fault of the teachers of teachers
and of organizations such as NCTE. The sensible conclusion of The Braddock
Report should have been that the terminology used to teach grammar
in K-12 should be simplified. And The Hillocks Report nonsensically
claims that there is no support for teaching grammar while simultaneously
praising the effectiveness of instruction in a study in which students
were taught a simpler set of grammatical concepts. The obvious conclusion
of both reports, in other words, should have been KEEP IT SIMPLE!
That conclusion, however, was vexatiously
ignored. (See definition #4 of "stupid.") As a result,
it was all but impossible to publish an article about improving instruction
in grammar. Manuscripts were simply returned with reviewers' comments that
implied the stupidity of the writer who was not aware of "the research."
As a result, in 1989 I founded a small newsletter called Syntax in the
Schools. The newsletter had no budget for advertising, so I was surprised
to find it attracting articles from across the country. The reason was
that the force of the NCTE resolution had closed almost all other outlets
for such articles. In 1990, I arranged a conference which resulted in the
formation of what is now the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English
But the result has been that ATEG has attracted
a fair number of linguists, many of whom have backgrounds in structural,
transformational, tagmemic, and other kinds of grammar. Each of these grammars
has its own set of terminology, and these are what these members want to
teach. Thus, instead of simplifying the grammar that is taught in the schools,
ATEG is actually making it more complicated. Various members are arguing
for their definitions, and some of these discussions become very complex.
(To verify this, visit the ATEG
list archives. February 2003, for example, has interesting threads
on "Contradictory" and "Contrary" definitions.) Although many members of
ATEG claim to be teaching teachers how to analyze texts, I have yet to
see any of them put out, either in books or on the web, the type of analysis
of students' writing, literature, and other texts that you will find here
on the KISS web site. Instead what I see is a rather sterile and senseless
(Definition #3) complicated discussion of grammatical
terminology. When I named my approach "KISS," I was primarily thinking
of the complex and often useless terminology of traditional grammar, but
now the situation is getting even worse. If the "Stupid" in KISS offends
these teachers of teachers, perhaps they deserve to be offended.
The Importance of the KISS Principle for Students
As noted above, stupidity is primarily
a matter of choices. In effect, "KISS" means Keep It Simple, or Choose
to Be Stupid." Twenty-five years of teaching college Freshmen has shown
me that a major problem for many students is that they make assignments,
almost any assignment, more complicated than it actually is.
In my Freshman composition course, for
example, I have been using an assignment in which students are expected
to choose a controversial topic, find four articles about it, and write
a short, six-paragraph essay in which each of the four body paragraphs
is a summary of one of the articles. This is a very simple assignment,
aimed at preparing the students to write the reviews of previous research
that they will have to include in many papers for upper division courses.
I tell the students that the paragraphs in their summaries should begin
with statements such as "___________ claims that" or "According to _____."
Then the paragraph simply explains the main ideas in the article. Far too
often, however, what I get from students are complicated "research" papers,
organized not by the articles but rather by ideas on the topic, with ideas
from different sources mixed in the same paragraphs. These students have
turned a relatively simple assignment into a complicated one, and, in so
doing, they have missed the objectives of the simple assignment.
The attitude of the teacher is, I should note,
important in the teaching of the KISS principle. As noted above, I believe
that students are much brighter than we usually give them credit for, and
I have to wonder if, perhaps, those teachers who dislike the KISS principle
do so because they believe that either they or their students really are
stupid (per definition #1). I even go so far as
to tell students to KEEP IT SIMPLE BECAUSE THEIR INSTRUCTOR [That's primarily
me.] IS STUPID. Not only do I really believe that, but I also suggest that
it may apply to all instructors. What I have in mind here is the second
definition, "dulled in feeling or sensation."
Instructors regularly take home anywhere
from a dozen to a hundred student essays, often on the same assignment.
Simply reading that many papers on the same topic is enough to dull one's
sensations. And instructors do have personal lives -- they cannot spend
the entire weekend reading one paper, taking a short break, and then starting
another. Thus they (we) often plow through sets of papers, and, as many
instructors in different fields have also told me, we are often looking
for very specific things. The specifics, of course, vary, but in most papers
the most important things are the thesis (main idea of the paper) and the
English teachers have a variety
of opinions on introductions, and even on the location of a thesis, but
as I suggest to my students, instructors in other areas generally expect
the thesis of a paper to be at the end of the introduction. That is the
"simple," standard place for it. Some students, however, like to get fancy
and put the thesis in the very first sentence of a paper. That is a stupid
choice because an instructor is liable to miss it -- and thus the entire
point of the paper. Not only might the instructor be dulled from the sheer
number of papers, both read and to be read, but most instructors are probably
not going to be expecting that thesis in the first sentence.
In fact, while reading through the first paragraph
of the paper, they may still be thinking about the validity of the grade
that was just put on the previous paper. I often do that, and if I get
two or three sentences into a paper and still find myself thinking about
the grade on the previous paper, I put the paper I am reading down and
go back to the previous paper. But sometimes I decide that that previous
grade was just, and then I simply keep on reading. If I missed the thesis
of this paper because it was in the first sentence, whose fault it that?
I might note here that in a small survey of
faculty members from across the curriculum, the most frequently cited weakness
of students was that the students do not follow simple directions. Hmmmm.
In my own experience, students' failure to follow directions often has
the result of making their task more complicated. In my Introduction to
Literature course, students write a paper in which they are expected to
use three literary concepts (symbolism, setting, etc.) to support their
view of the theme of a story. Instead of simply using the three concepts
that they best understand, far too many students discuss four, five, or
even six concepts. The same happens in my Freshman Composition course.
In one paper, students are expected to find an editorial and discuss three
logical fallacies in it. (Note that in this assignment, the requirement
of three shows up in the grading sheets for thesis and for details.) Logical
fallacies are not easy concepts, but some students insist on making the
assignment more complex than it is -- instead of discussing just three
fallacies, they try to explain four or five. Examples of students making
assignments more complicated than they are could go on at length. It is,
in other words, another context in which the KISS principle is relevant
and very important for some students.
Some people who like the KISS Approach
but who still do not want to tell students that the acronym originates
from the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle have offered alternative meanings.
My least favorite of these is "Keep It Simple, Silly." Personally, I consider
this interpretation to be more demeaning than "Stupid" might be. In effect,
it treats students as if they are all little kiddies, incapable of being
competent, and thus, incapable of making stupid choices. In addition, it
demeans the subject matter.
Another suggestion is "Keep It Super
Simple." My problem with this is that it may be misleading. For people
who are already familiar with grammatical and linguistic terminology, KISS
may be not only super simple, but also overly simplistic. Experience has
taught me, however, that people who are not familiar with grammatical concepts
will initially find KISS to be confusing. Many people, for example, expect
instructional material on grammar to teach them the "right" answer -- even
the possibility of alternative explanations confuses them. Add to that
the fact that KISS almost immediately dives into the analysis of randomly
selected texts. The sentences in many of these texts are not the super
simple sentences that are found in most grammar textbooks. And then there
is the fact that the workbooks offer a variety of ways and types of exercises
to reach the required and desired objectives. Many people will find this
confusing, so calling the approach "Keep It Super Simple" may add to their
The suggestion for an alternative that I like
the best is "Keep It Simple for Style." The implication here seems to be
to keep the grammar itself (the terminology and constructions) simple so
that students can actually get to effectively applying it to the style
of their own writing. And that is what the KISS Approach is designed to
do. The name "KISS" originated from the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle,
but I have no trouble with considering "KISS" to mean "Keep It Simple for
Style," or perhaps even "Keep It Simple and Smart." Of course, if you are
really smart, you don't object to the word "stupid."