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What's grammar got to do with it?: the whys & hows of working with issues of correctness in writing

Pamela Flash

What are we to do about the errors—grammatical errors, stylistic errors, and the overall muddiness—we see in of some of the student writing piled up on our desks? Are we supposed to be teaching grammar in our courses?

Grammar—a word with distinct and visceral associations for faculty and students alike—is grouped with similar terms like Standard Usage and "rhetorical correctness" in many critiques and impromptu State of Writing addresses that are being delivered by faculty and teaching assistants around campus. Our fixation on these issues has proven as controversial as it is distracting. Mention "Standard Usage" in a few academic circles and you will likely be accused of cultural, or at least rhetorical, imperialism. Further, many of the forms and standards guiding "correct" writing in a Microbiology course are different from those in, say, a Business Administration course.

It might be useful, therefore, to recognize that "correctness" depends largely on context, on the extent to which a writer fulfills or frustrates the expectations of her or his reader. Effective writing, from this perspective, doesn't involve universal wrongs and rights; rather, it involves perceptions, choices and effects on readers. Our students will acknowledge that as writers, they want to be considered competent enough to attain (and retain) enough authority to convince their academic readers of the validity of their message. Inappropriate stylistic or grammatical choices will damage their ability to appear credible to those readers, partly because error-ridden writing brings the attention back to the writer, distracting readers from content.

Possible causes of student errors

Why, then, are student writers making erroneous choices? The first two reasons that usually come to mind are a) they aren't spending adequate time on the assignments and/or b) they're ignorant of the conventions of Standard Usage (perhaps, we continue, because they don't spend enough time reading). In some cases, one or both of these might be to blame. In others, we may need to look deeper to find the root of the problem. Consider, for example, that…

  • Students are highly aware that grammar can be considered "right" or "wrong." Although many might feel that decisions about what belongs in one camp and what belongs in another are made arbitrarily by English teachers, they are willing to consider grammar one of the few quantitative elements to the whole messy business of writing. Some of our students might be so hyperaware of the rules that they garble whatever they write in their efforts to protect it from the red pen of correction.
  • Students may be putting so much energy into deciding what it is they want to say, or trying to figure out what it is the instructor wants them to say, that the resulting writing can be characterized as a stream-of-consciousness-style exploration of ideas the writer has tried to pass off as a finished product by using inflated language and overly formal passive voice. If, as the deadline draws near, they are still uncertain about what it is they want to say, they may hedge by stocking their papers with vague constructions, generalizations and clichés.
  • Some students may be so much more familiar with spoken forms of the language that when they sit down to write, they are simply translating spoken cadences.

How do these possible explanations influence remedies? What follows is a list of questions faculty and teaching assistants are asking as they attempt to resolve these issues and errors in their own classrooms. These questions are matched with suggestions that attempt to take the above causes into account.

Motivating grammar consciousness

How can I inspire students to see grammatically correct writing as a goal that is worth their effort?

Suggestion A: This involves moving the red pen from your hand to theirs. If students can be persuaded that their ideas are too important to be dismissed by readers in the academic community, they might be more willing to take a closer look. It also bears noting that in classes where students are asked to do frequent informal writing assignments (five-minute papers, written brainstorming, etc.), they may be more likely to hit upon compelling ideas—ideas that they really care about developing and communicating clearly to their readers.

Rationale: The impression that correct grammar and mechanics are more important than compelling ideas can cause students to see "good" writing as "formulaic" and soulless—not something that is worth much effort.

Suggestion B: Consider bringing the idea of "audience" into your assignments. What does the audience already know about a chosen writing topic and what does that audience expect with regard to tone, format and style? Consider driving this point home by designating a specific audience for an assignment (a discipline-specific journal, Web site, periodical, brochure) and/or asking students to rewrite short pieces for different audiences.

Rationale: Students often matriculate to college secure in their assumption that the course instructor is their only audience. What they need to figure out, in that case, is only whether or not that instructor is "picky" about grammar. Because students in this situation have no experience writing for, and therefore considering the expectations of, a larger audience, they are free to dismiss concern over grammar as the irrelevant idiosyncrasies, i.e., pickiness, of specific instructors.

When to talk grammar

At what point in an assignment or draft process is it most useful to draw students' attention to their errors?

Suggestion A: Wait until students are well into drafts. Initial time and response are most usefully directed to honing focus and getting a handle on some of the larger rhetorical issues like organization and development. Comments on stylistic and mechanical issues are most useful at the point when students have secured the general territory of the piece.

Rationale: Although some of us may need to sit on our hands to keep from making comments on written errors, we do so because we're aware of the negative effects that these comments might have when we offer them too early in the process. If we want students to be willing to revise substantially, to chop out whole sections of padding in order to zero-in on a perceived glimmer of great insight, it is unwise to ask that they polish their initial efforts. If they do, they will be understandingly reticent about sacrificing something that they have taken the time to "correct." At the same time, making numerous comments in the margins of finished drafts will likely be utterly ignored or seen as justification for the assigned grade. At this point it is best to make end comments that identify patterns of error, recognizing that unless students are required to log and correct those errors (see suggestion in response to handling the diversity of error), it is too late in the game for them to feel that these punitive-looking comments are intended as helpful.

Suggestion B: Include grammar and mechanics in your grading scheme and share this grading scheme with students when you first distribute the assignment.

Rationale: Grading on ideas only will signal to students that error-free writing isn't important. That said, you will need to make decisions about how heavily you want these surface issues to count toward the total. Consider, for example, that giving issues of correctness the same weight you give insights and ideas might cause students to take fewer risks with their content (see Responding and Grading).

But I'm not trained to teach grammar!

When I read garbled student writing, I know that it must be filled with errors, but nothing in my training prepares me to name the error or teach about its identification and/or correction. How can I prove useful to students in my writing-intensive course when all I can tell them for sure is that a passage is "unclear"?

Suggestion A: Clarify for yourself whether you are seeing an error or a stylistic choice that you disagree with.

Rationale: We may be spending so much time revising our own scholarly writing that we might be guilty of imposing our written "style" or voice on students rather than allowing them to develop their own.

Suggestion B: Respond to unclear passages as a reader rather than a grammarian by jotting down what the passage forces you to wonder (e.g.: "Do you mean…", or "As I read this, you are saying ___. Do you mean something else?) At minimum, you can place a checkmark or other symbol in the margin by unclear passages, directing students to refer to their handbooks to determine the error and its remedy.

Rationale: It isn't as important for students to know the grammatical name of the construction they are having difficulty with—if the naming were important, you would probably still remember what they were called! Noting that a passage is "unclear" doesn't give them enough information. Specifying your confusion as a reader may give students enough information (and perspective) to correct the error.

Suggestion C: If you are seeing a student in office hours or conference, consider reading unclear passages aloud. If you are working with written comments only, ask the student to read the passage aloud, or to get a friend to do so.

Rationale: We are sometimes more able to hear than see garbled constructions.

Handling the diversity of error

I'm not seeing many shared patterns of error among the students in my course; each individual has her/his customized assortment of gaffes. Is there something I can do other than meet with each individually?

Suggestion: Motivate students to proofread by getting them to create customized proofreading lists of their own habitual errors. Once you've commented on the two or three types of errors you're picking up in a draft, they're responsible for listing examples of those errors in a small notebook somewhere, with corrections and, if you like, the handbook pages that explain the type of error they're working with. You may or may not want students to turn these in periodically.

Rationale: Your students will come to you with some background in grammar, usually enough to generate a real distaste. This will make "grammar lessons" bomb. They also come with different patterns of errors—and different skill levels. This method puts the responsibility back on those of them who have bad habits to break them.

Practical alternatives to copyediting

It's taking me forever to correct all of the grammatical problems I'm finding on the drafts, but if I don't catch them all, the student writers won't learn, right?

Suggestion A: Rather than digging in with your pen to untangle sentences and draw attention to every unsightly word choice and mangled construction, step back for a moment and see if you can detect patterns of error, or the erroneous logic that might be causing the errors. Use the first or last five-to-ten minutes of class to project an anonymous example of a student error. Ask students to discuss their analysis of the problem, and their recommendations for revision (they can do this in pairs or groups). After clarifying the problem, and, whenever possible, discussing its possible causes, the next step is for students to pull out whatever draft they currently have in progress and to scan it (or that of a peer) for precisely this sort of error.

Rationale: By serving as students' copy editor, you're exhausting yourself and, in effect, teaching them very little. Research has shown that students will have difficulty recognizing enough about the mistake that you've corrected to avoid repeating it.

Suggestion B: Make grammar and style-related comments on one portion of the draft only—one paragraph or one page, for example.

Rationale: So long as you inform students that you are limiting your focus in this way, they won't assume that everything else in their drafts is correct.