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The Grammar Question

posted: 11.5.10 by archived

When I was working at Writing Center last week, a student came in with a midterm from her developmental English class. She hadn’t done well on the exam, and her teacher had suggested she come in for some help. The three-page exam contained a page with sentences in which students were to underline subjects and verbs, as well as two paragraphs rife with sentence fragments to repair.

Despite current trends away from teaching grammar in skill and drill fashion (at least at the college level), such instruction seems to be an important part of many developmental comp classes and, in the basic writing texts I’ve examined, generally takes up about half of the pages.

As I start to put this course together, I’ve been thinking about what place grammar instructions should have, what form it should take, and how I should approach both the course description’s mandate that “basic principles of spelling, punctuation, usage, sentence structure, and paragraph and essay development are stressed” and the expectation on the part of health science colleagues that the English department produce students capable of writing reasonably “correct” prose.

Let’s start with purpose: what could be the instructor’s aim in teaching grammar as the stand-alone content of a composition class?

  • So that students might come closer to writing without “error”? (Devan Cook’s article “The Location of Error: Reflections on a Research Project” in the Sept. 2010 issue of TETYC points out what a problematic notion error is.)
  • So that students might appreciate how sentences are put together, so that perhaps they may become more conscious of syntactical and stylistic choices? (I have some sympathy for this aim, but it seems pitched a little higher than the more pressing needs of developmental students.)
  • So that students might hone logical thinking skills as perhaps they do by studying, say, algebra or trigonometry? (Again, as a mathematics student, I find this plausible, though remotely.)
  • So that students might come to love grammar as much as their instructor, who fondly remembers learning to diagram sentences and to understand verb tense and mood in high school Latin class? (Not bloody likely.)

In a more cold-hearted risk-benefit analysis, I have to ask if (and how) these grammar skills will transfer to student writing. The sizable risk here is boredom, and the time and attention displaced from looking more directly at student writing.

A hypothesis. At its most basic, I want my writing students to understand these two things:

  1. How general statements both grow out of and are supported by particulars.
  2. How to recognize and revise the incoherence that may appear as they read from one sentence to the next.

I know I need to talk about grammar, though, so I ask myself what is minimally necessary. I discover online suggestions such as Five Grammatical Errors That Make You Look Dumb (your, its, there, effect/affect, dangling modifiers) and, in more PC terms, Five Most Common Grammatical Errors (run-ons, pronouns, apostrophes, subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers). My own version would run something like this: sentence boundary errors (which I’d estimate to be about 85 percent run-ons), verbs, pronouns, homonyms, plurals/possessives.

So what are the implications of covering only the amount of grammar that is necessary? First, it encourages me to prioritize errors; issues like commas after introductory subordinate clauses are not high on my list, nor are a number of the entries from Andrea and Karen Lunsford’s “The Top Twenty .”

Also, it makes me realize how vast is the apparatus of grammatical terminology, and how much of it is nonessential to the understanding of 95 percent of the usage errors my students commit. (We need not discuss indirect objects, future perfect tenses, conjunctive adverb, nonrestrictive relative clauses, gerund phrases that serve as objects of prepositions—the list goes on and on, a dangerous list to get started on because it’s so hard to know where to stop!)

So tell me: Where do you start or stop your conversations about grammar in the writing classroom, especially for developmental writers?

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Categories: Community College issues, Grammar & Style, Holly Pappas
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