Tag Archives: The Great Grammar Debate

Basic Grammar Leads to Basic Communication

The Great Grammar DebateGrammar may seem tedious and frivolous to many. You may think you’re wording is right, but then you ended your sentence in a preposition. Or you split an infinitive. Or you used ‘affect’ as a noun. Just when you think you can get away with a passive sentence, you’re suddenly overcome with the fear of the wrath of your anthropology professor who definitely reads her copy of the Chicago Manual of Style to her kids every night before bedtime.

You ask, what’s the point? Why do we need such strict rules to communicate an idea?

Because it’s important to maintain a consistent structure so that we can most effectively understand each other. It’s a sort of framework we need, a basic element, which we can build from to explain our ideas with as little confusion as possible.

Grammar is like what Arthur Shopenhauer says about mankind… and porcupines:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told–in the English phrase–to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

He explains that humans maintain a basic set of manners so that we can tolerate as many people as possible based off this minimal foundation that we’ve all agreed was an acceptable way to act. Like politeness, grammar is also this minimal foundation to which we must adhere for others to understand and make communication possible. Simply put, we rely on grammar, whether or not we’re cognizant of it, to interact with others on a basic, often misunderstood level.

Grammar: The Importance of Content

When I look at the appointment form online and all a client has to work on is “grammar,” I cringe a little bit.  I think grammar is important, but I am not an expert, I do not know all of the rules and I really cannot explain them. I am also a firm believer that the importance of grammar depends on the situation or the type of writing.  Grammatical errors on a one page resume stand out more than errors in a five page paper.  Resumes are meant to be scannable and grammatical errors may stick out more and cost the writer a job.  But with a larger piece of writing, like a five page paper, grammatical errors don’t stick out as much.  Continue reading

Understanding “Writing” More Broadly

The Great Grammar DebateI can admit that standard grammar is an exceedingly important part of writing, particularly in the academic context that The Writing Center exists in. If only to avoid being distracting to readers, grammar is important. If we also want to convey a sense of professionalism or mastery of coursework, it becomes indispensable.

I will also admit, however, that I absolutely hate focusing on it in sessions. To explain my distain, I will point to my title as a “Writing Consultant.” There is a distinct ideological difference between tutoring writing and tutoring English, as a language. As mentioned in the introduction to this series, The Writing Center does not require consultants to be “grammar experts,” though we all have a general knowledge that is sufficient for most situations.

Though grammar is integral to clear writing, there is a great deal more to the expression of our thoughts, ideas, and feelings through the written word than grammar alone. A typical academic writing assignment, for example, requires that a student be able to read and understand often lengthy prompts, have formulated original, insightful thoughts on the topic, articulate and structure their ideas logically and in adherence with American academic conventions, and all the while keeping in mind course materials and themes. Juggling all of these various, competing conditions requires a number of skills that take time to develop. Our goal at The Writing Center is to not simply to make better papers, but better writers. To do so necessitates that we focus on helping clients develop these skills to do well now, and throughout their college career. Continue reading

Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important”

The Great Grammar Debate

It’s a normal occurrence in a writing center appointment. I will ask, “what would you like to work on today?”  The response typically includes — or starts with — the word “grammar.”

I want to stress, first and foremost, that this is okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting your college paper to contain Standard American English grammar, especially considering how it generally is part of your grade. That said, many writing assignments have grammar and mechanics as part of a paper’s grade, but it often accounts for roughly 10 percent or less of that paper’s grade. That means there’s another 90 percent of that paper to work on, so why wouldn’t we talk about that, too? Put another way, a paper can have absolutely perfect grammar and still fail miserably. Continue reading

Grammar isn’t the Bad Guy

The Great Grammar DebateOne of the phrases I hear the most from students coming to The Writing Center is, “I’m terrible at grammar.” What’s highly interesting about this phrase is two things: 1.) Generally speaking, students say “grammar,” but actually define that term as including “grammar, spelling, and punctuation,” and 2.) In my experience, 9 out of every 10 people who have said that really aren’t bad at it at all. It seems like, for a variety of reasons, this idea of “proper grammar” has become some sort of multi-headed beast in peoples’ minds; an unconquerable set of rules, punctuation marks, spelling, etc., that they just don’t have a chance at mastering. FALSE.

Firebreathing dragon, with the word "Gramma" in the flames.

Image via www.churchstroke.com, edited by Gines

Being good at grammar isn’t something that everybody just inherently knows; it’s like a muscle that grows over time as you continually learn more about how to strengthen it. Grammar also isn’t this set of rigid rules designed to make writing difficult, but rather the resource that helps you to communicate well through your writing. In reality, it’s no different from the chemist using the right beaker to successfully conduct the experiment, or the violinist who must tune their strings to the correct pitch before a performance.

Additionally, using proper grammar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crafting flourishing sentences of “erstwhile’s,” “thou’s,” and “fortnight’s.” In fact, using it correctly doesn’t even guarantee that it’s a good sentence. What actually makes writing interesting and enjoyable to read is largely based on the content. Grammar, then, is the vehicle that helps you deliver those important words to your audience. Think of it like this: grammar is not a set of strict rules looking for every opportunity to trip you up between subject-verb agreements, or using the proper tense. Instead, it is a set of tools that helps you get your message to the audience. For example, if you have an idea for a fantastic play or a witty short story, grammar isn’t your enemy here. It’s the resource you use that helps you to translate what you see in your mind to words on paper in a way that allows other people to understand what you’ve envisioned.

Ultimately, the term “proper grammar” seems to evoke this idea of rules upon rules that just aren’t easy or enjoyable to use. Then again, what chemist is going to say that his favorite part of experimentation is the beakers? What musician will say that for them, it’s all about tuning up the instrument? This applies just as much to writers. Proper grammar isn’t the reason people write; we do it to tell stories, to inspire audiences, to create something meaningful, and so much more. Grammar is simply the tool that allows us to share our ideas through writing.

The Great Grammar Debate: An Introduction

The Great Grammar DebateThis is the first post in a series on the grammar debate among consultants and the larger field of writing center studies. Here at MSU we see lots of clients who come to us for help with “grammar,” which we then caution that we do more than grammar and are interested in having a conversation about their writing, versus just pointing out grammatical “errors.”

But, at the same time, grammar IS what we do. For example, a resume or personal statement, high stakes documents, with grammatical errors may restrict a client from getting a job, getting into graduate school, or receiving a scholarship.

We don’t require our consultants to be grammar experts; I, for one, am certainly not. But I did stick pretty closely to grammar conventions of Standard American English for this blog post. Would you have read this far if I had not? What would it mean, or even look like, to not write with these conventions? To not consultant or tutor with these conventions? This series on The Great Grammar Debate considers these questions, and more.

At MSU we have consultants who love grammar, some who dislike grammar, and a lot of folks who are indifferent. As such, in this series you’ll hear from a variety of viewpoints. Our intention is not to arrive at an answer or to come out on one side or the other. We believe there are multiple perspectives to this debate, however it’s important to destabilize a seemingly invincible understanding of grammar in writing centers.