Grammar and mechanics

To many, grammar seems like the simplest and most foundational of issues in teaching writing, something students learn – or should learn – in “grammar school,” long before they reach college.  We’d suggest, however, that it’s actually among the most complicated issues teachers of writing have to deal with and that the process through which writers learn to construct proper, effective, syntactically complex sentences is very different from what many people imagine it to be. 

But the very first thing we’d say about grammar to faculty teaching Writing Across the Curriculum courses is that we don’t think you should feel any obligation to teach it as part of a required commitment to WAC.  Help students with their grammar if you want to and if you feel you can, by all means.  And of course make it clear to students when you find their language either unclear or insufficiently polished.  But teaching a writing-intensive course means you’ll already have plenty to do – including constructing assignments that engage students in meaningful writing, reading that work carefully, responding to students’ ideas thoughtfully, and encouraging healthy writing habits.  So though it never hurts to point them out, we don’t believe you need to spend time in class leading students through handbook exercises on the possessive apostrophe or comma splices.  In fact, many faculty members tell us they don’t feel qualified to work on grammar – that they can edit, for example, but can’t effectively explain the reasons for the changes they’d recommend – and this is a worry we both understand and honor.  Being a fluent writer and having the language with which to talk about the construction of sentences are entirely different things. 

So if you have the time and inclination, of course, it’s wonderful for WAC teachers to offer support for sentence-level issues.  We very much appreciate the inclination to work closely with students on their language.  But when you feel your students’ work is disabled by an inability to write either proper or effectively complex sentences, we suggest sending them to the Writing Center for the sort of careful tutoring it’s likely difficult for you to provide.

That said, we’d also offer a few general points of consensus in the scholarship on grammar that may condition how you talk with students about their writing:

1.  The majority of sentence-level errors have little or nothing to do with a writer’s ability to formulate or communicate an idea:  we object to them for socio-rhetorical reasons.  As Maxine Hairston has pointed out, that is, nobody misunderstands the sentence “He brung his secretary with him,” even though Hairston’s work suggests that it’s precisely the kind of error that bothers many of us most (Hairston 796).  Instead, we see in it the signs of a lack of preparation or polish that – fairly or unfairly, and reasonable people disagree about this – leads many readers to question the writer’s authority, intelligence, or readiness to participate in civil discussions.  Hairston calls these errors “status-markers” (796), and they’re the product of a collision of dialects, systematically variant ways to speak the language, along with a lack of familiarity with the conventions of written as opposed to spoken discourse.

2.  We should distinguish these surface-level errors – errors of usage conventions – from errors in what some linguists call sentence-formation rules, which are more troubling.  Mina Shaughnessy, one of the pioneers of work in “Basic Writing,” calls these “syntactic” rather than “common” or “inflectional” errors.  These are the really disabling errors, and they aren’t easily addressed:  when then the various pieces of a sentence don’t hold together tenably, the idea it’s trying to articulate doesn’t either.  Working with writers on these sorts of sentences depends on one’s ability to slowly tease out the connections between their different pieces, which is really hard, slow work.  This isn’t simply about pointing out patterns of error.

3.  Mastery of both aspects of sentence-level writing – both grammar and usage, both “syntactic” and “inflectional” patterns – is developed mainly through practice rather than the elaboration of rules.   Though it’s often debated, many who study writing claim that time spent on explicit grammar instruction either has no effect on or in fact actually inhibits a writer’s ability to write in standard ways, since it takes time away from their practice of the language.  See Patrick Hartwell’s “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching Grammar” for one of the most frequently cited articulations of this argument.  Guided practice – beginning with sentences composed by the student him or herself – is a good idea, but we’d recommend that you not waste much time lecturing to the group on complete sentences or the proper use of the semi-colon.  We believe the Writing Center is best-positioned to offer this sort of guidance.

4.  Fluency and knowledge of grammar structures or rules are in no way the same thing.  A writer’s ability to articulate what constitutes an independent clause is separate from his or her ability to construct one reliably.  The ability to identify parts of speech and sentence patterns – to define “adjective” or to find indirect objects – neither depends on nor ensures fluency.  Don’t imagine that errors will disappear just because you’ve cited the proper handbook passage or named the rule; as much as you can, illustrate it with reference to the student’s own work – or, again, send the student to the Writing Center, where they have more time to do this.

5.  A writer’s propensity for error and the intellectual challenges of what he or she is writing are directly related.  The fact that a student makes errors in a paper he or she has prepared for you doesn’t necessarily mean that the language itself is really his or her problem.  It’s for this reason that Composition and Rhetoric scholar David Bartholomae calls some errors “markers of development in a writer” – signs that a writer may be struggling to articulate some important new concept or perspective.

6.  Standards of usage are profoundly relative.  Not all educated users of the language by any means agree on what constitutes the appropriate way to use it:  what you regard as error may very well not be shared by everyone else on campus.  The Hairston study cited above, called “Not All Errors are Created Equal,” gave 65 sentences containing errors to readers and asked them to characterize their responses as “Does Not Bother Me,” “Bothers Me a Little,” or “Bothers Me A Lot” (Hairston 795).  None of the sixty-five questions elicited a universal response among the eighty-four respondents, and most drew significantly divided responses.  We don’t mean that instructors shouldn’t have their own preferences about usage or that they shouldn’t ask students to observe them when those preferences reflect shared disciplinary norms, as they often do.  But we do suggest that instructors should keep in mind that their students – and other educated readers, too – may well not share them and so may well see them as arbitrary and foreign. 

7.  Correction is sometimes more about social context and the relations between readers and writers than it is about anything absolute in the language.  Joseph Williams, former Director of the Writing Program at the University of Chicago, could give us some pointers on this.  Famous for his sentence-level “Little Red Schoolhouse” pedagogy and his frequently assigned stylebook called Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Williams also famously authored an article called “The Phenomenology of Error” in which he argued that error was a phenomenon of reading – a relationship between readers, writers, and the language conventions they choose – rather than predictable violations to a static and finite set rules.  To prove his point, he inserted “about 100 errors” (Phenomenology 165) into his own article, revealing this fact only at the end.  Just as Williams imagined, few first-time readers report noticing any errors at all, in large part, Williams claims, out of deference to his position as a published author.  We might notice these errors, he suggests, when we’re trained to be looking for them – say, when we read the work of students, who we’re encouraged to think of as apprentice writers in need of instruction – but not in a journal article by an expert on sentence-level prose.  Any errors included in his article that we didn’t object to on an uninformed first reading, he contends – dangling participles, pronoun case, split infinitives – “should then not be among those we look for first when we read a student paper.” (Phenomenology 164).

8.  You set the terms for your discipline’s expectations about language as you read and respond to student work.  Are you giving too much or too little attention to grammar and mechanics when you read and grade student work?  As with most other criteria for judging texts, the Writing Across the Curriculum program takes a largely laissez-faire approach to this question:  we believe that your field’s readers will set the standard for its expectations about grammar and mechanics.  Some fields place a much higher emphasis on propriety and uniformity than others, and some value complexity of sentence structure, while others show great preference for simplicity and directness.  This is natural and as it should be, and while we would dissuade any instructors from applying idiosyncratic or arbitrary standards to student writing, we would also encourage you to keep faith with your instincts about what constitutes appropriate language in your field.  You know what matters at the sentence level, just as you know what matters in terms of larger issues like objective, structure, and forms of evidence. 

Works Cited 

Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 523-553. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2011. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.

Hairston, Maxine. "Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers In The Professions Respond To Lapses In Usage." College English 43.8 (1981): 794-806. ERIC. Web. 24 Nov. 2011.

Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, And The Teaching Of Grammar." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 205-233. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2011. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.

Shaughnessy, Mina.  Errors and Expectations:  A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Williams, Joseph M.  Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.  Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1981.

Williams, Joseph M. "The Phenomenology of Error." College Composition and Communication 32.2 (1981): 152-168. MLA International Bibliography.  Web. 26 Nov. 2011.

Back to faculty FAQs and resources