Faculty have complained about students’ grammar and editing since at least the eighteenth century, but no one has ever figured out a simple, reliable way to teach students to produce error-free prose. So what can we do to help?
First, keep in mind that you are not responsible for teaching grammar, but you also shouldn’t ignore writing problems (see Scratching the Surface for more on this). John Bean, author of Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, recommends a simple solution: don’t accept work that doesn’t meet your editing standards. Just give it back and demand that students do better. Most students are capable of writing stronger sentences. They don’t bother to edit carefully because faculty rarely demand that they do.
Of course, many students do need to review rules and polish their style. Below, we suggest some resources to help.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of grammar, mechanics, and editing in writing, scroll down on this page for links to some of the best articles on the topic from scholars in Writing Studies.
The Georgetown University Writing Center is a free resource open to all enrolled Georgetown students. Graduate and undergraduate peer tutors trained in teaching writing are available to assist students at any stage of the composing process. Whether writers are just beginning to brainstorm or finishing a project, the goal is to provide a collaborative center for the discussion of writing.
The Writing Center is not an editing or proofreading service, but tutors will work with students to improve their own editing and proofreading skills. They don’t simply correct errors because they hope to help students become their own best proofreaders.
In addition to individual tutoring, the Writing Center’s website directs students to a variety of resources on revision and editing.
Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford has identified the twenty most common grammar and usage errors in writing by university students and offered advice on how to fix them.
Online Grammar Discussions
Lively debates about grammar and mechanics continue to rage among those interested in the subject. The following links introduce a variety of angles on the topic.
- Grammar Girl Minion Fogerty’s podcast covers the most common as well as the most vexing grammar issues. Of particular interest: her Top Ten Grammar Myths.
- The New York Times hosts debates about a range of grammar issues.
- And the “Comma Queen” at the New Yorker has posted a series of videos on editing issues.
Research on Grammar
While many articles and books have been published on grammar, these represent some of the key elements of the discussion.
Connors, Robert J., and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” College Composition and Communication 39.4 (Dec. 1988): 395-409.
The authors conducted a study of 3,000 college papers to determine the most common patterns of student writing errors made in the 1980s. Their results included finding that college English teachers do not always agree on what is a serious writing error, that teachers mark only 43% of the most serious errors in the papers they grade, and that teachers are less likely to mark an error that requires extensive explanation. The authors concluded that students in the 1980s make approximately the same number of errors as students earlier in the century.
Curzan, Anne. “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” PMLA (2009).
Curzan argues that we abandon our job as teachers if we do not ask students to question how they are expected to write in school and other institutions. She advocates simultaneously teaching prescriptive grammatical rules and empowering students to think critically about them.
Edbauer Rice, Jenny. “Rhetoric’s Mechanics: Retooling the Equipment of Writing Production.” CCC 60.2 (2008): 366-387.
Edbauer Rice aligns grammatical mechanics and technological mechanics, embracing both as important means of rhetorical production rather than activity that is peripheral to intellectual work.
Hartwell, Patrick.“Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47.2 (1985): 105-127.
Hartwell reviews research showing that the explicit teaching of grammar either has no effect on the quality of student writing or, in fact, has a negative effect. He examines various definitions of “grammar” as part of his study of instruction.
Lunsford, Andrea A. and Karen J. Lunsford. “’Mistakes Are a Fact of Life’: A National Comparative Study.” College Composition and Communication 59.4 (Jun. 2008): 781-806.
The authors report on a study of first-year student writing. Based on a stratified national sample, the study attempted to replicate research conducted twenty-two years ago and to chart the changes that have taken place in student writing since then. The findings suggest that papers are longer, employ different genres, and contain new error patterns but that the rate of error in student writing has remained consistent for the past century.
Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32.2 (May 1981): 152-168.
Williams examines our selective attention to different types of grammatical and usage errors, demonstrating that even expert readers ignore many of the rules.