Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Mmm, tastes good; could use more commas, though.

Despite spell and grammar check, or perhaps because of them, many of my students can’t seem to spell their way out of a paper bag. Many of them treat punctuation like a condiment – season with commas to taste. And then there are the text messages that find their way into formal papers: it is important for u to make sure your sources are legit.

On my worst teaching days I feel like expecting accurate, polished writing is a lost cause; I should be happy if some of it just makes sense. On better days I remember that learning to write well is a process. Many of the ideas and skills I introduce will need to be gone over again and again throughout my students’ college careers (and beyond). I, as the instructor of freshman, am getting in on the beginning of this process; most students won’t master any writing skill or rule during the short time I’m with them – and that is okay.

I also know that students want to learn more about grammar and usage (in theory, at least). They suspect punctuation and style rules are like a secret handshake of the academically savvy. Consequently, I try to give grammar its due: important, but less important than supporting a thesis. I generally attack the subject later in the course, in small doses, and during later stages of drafting.

I break the umbrella word “grammar” into two categories: style and usage. Style covers those instances of awkward sentences full of tortured syntax and nonsense poorly veiled by sixty-four dollar words, as well as examples of inappropriate diction and tone. Usage problems cover hard and fast rules of punctuation, spelling, verb tenses, etc.

Some practical ideas for dealing with usage:

Proofreading Lesson/practice: Studies have shown (and my experience as a tutor has reinforced) that students can recognize up to ninety percent of copyediting errors if they simply slow down when proofreading. At least once a quarter I have a lecture/discussion when I elicit/suggest proofreading techniques such as reading work out loud, reading papers backwards, using search and replace functions in word processing programs, etc. Then I have them take those drafts home or look at one another’s in class and put the techniques to the test.

Editing log: This is a worksheet (available through me or at the PSU Writing Center) that students use to keep track of their own proofreading foibles. As the instructor, you can identify a couple of errors on each draft that seem to be a pattern of error for the student. She is then responsible for figuring out how to fix it and how to remember not to make the same mistake again. This becomes her checklist for proofreading future drafts.

Grammar “nuggets”: Have mini-lessons or readings on common usage errors, i.e. it’s vs. its. These can consist of reading short sections out of a handbook or the PSU Writing Center blog, a regular five-minute lecture, or a student presentation. Once students have been reminded of the usage rule, they should have to apply this knowledge to copy-editing a draft. The key, if there is one, is to have them apply these rules to their own writing – to practice. Just hearing or seeing the rules won’t make them sink in.


Have a style workshop: Identify a few style issues for students to look at specifically in one another’s drafts such as passive voice, sentence variety, level of diction, etc.

Same piece, different angles: Write about the same subject, but for different audiences, using different voices. This is a good exercise for many reasons. It can help break bad habits; it draws attention to rhetorical choices we make as writers based on audience, author, and purpose; and it can be fun.

Read your texts for style, not just content: Have students analyze the grammatical structures (sentences and phrases) and rhetorical moves in texts. Have them consider questions about what kinds of sentence structures and language the author uses. What does this tell you about the author? The audience? How would you imitate it?

Outsource: Recommend students take the grammar refresher course offered through the English department and encourage them to visit the writing center.

Please share your questions and your own ideas about grammar, especially if you have tools that have worked well. Post comments on this blog or email me at daneen.bergland@gmail.com.


The Portland State University Writing Center said...

Yeah! Commas are cool.

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