This semester, I am living out one of my long-cherished dreams: teaching a series of intensive grammar workshops for multilingual learners and struggling student writers. On Friday afternoons, my colleague and I face a group of students who willingly admit their bad relationship with grammar. So far, we’ve had four sessions, teaching anywhere from 2 to 16 students each time.
In our first class, I introduced the difference between grammar and style—a distinction often conflated even by literature teachers. The principles of grammar describe the inherent structure of a language; they explain how a language behaves and help speakers and listeners understand the text. Style encompasses how we use the language in a given situation—whether we dress it up or dress it down. Where grammar entails certain rules—though not as many as most people think—style is created through a person’s choices.
A few weeks ago, a student came for writing tutoring to improve her grammar. Handing me her essay, she explained, “My professor says my grammar is terrible.” As I looked over her work, I noticed a handful of grammatical mistakes: one issue with pronouns, a forgotten apostrophe, and a typo that Spell Check wouldn’t catch. However, her writing was far from appropriate for the formal assignment; she frequently slipped into second person, using lots of “you” and “your,” and she chose informal words, like “kids,” “guys,” or “great.” I noted, too, that she used contractions, which are usually discouraged in formal academic writing. Her writing displayed stylistic issues, not grammatical mishaps: her paper was trying to wear a bathing suit to the opera.
Because this student was writing for a sociology professor, I was unsurprised by the misinformation she received. I don’t expect instructors beyond the realm of composition or linguistics to handle writing feedback with such nerdy precision. Still, I am irritated by this mix-up. I cringe when I hear about comments that are critical and erroneous; I know how damaging professors’ feedback can be. As a writing tutor, I often hear students say, “I’m an awful writer” or “My teacher says I have the worst grammar,” and I hear similar sentiments from my own students.
Even positive feedback reveals students’ lack of confidence: after I praised one of my students for her excellent summary assignment, she said, “I’m just so glad you don’t think I’m dumb!” This student emails me with questions, comes to my office, tries her best on all assignments, but, like countless others, she has been labelled a bad writer. Her years of teacher-centered education have taught her one prevailing lesson: the teacher-authority will always judge you more accurately than you judge yourself. If she believes in herself but her grades don’t confirm this belief, then she defers to the grades. She lets the letters and numbers assess her gifts and learns not to trust herself. Thus, even though she claims to enjoy creative writing and journaling, she insists, “I’ve always been a bad writer.”
Of course, “bad writer” is an umbrella term that catches all kinds of writing struggles: grammatical confusion, misinterpreted assignment instructions, late-night drafting, learning disabilities, the influence of other languages, procrastination from serious writer’s block, lack of coherent grammar instruction. Some of these issues can be handled directly in the classroom while others require special one-on-one attention. In my courses, I address process issues like writer’s block by devoting an entire class session to planning for an upcoming paper. Students claim that they don’t know what to write about, so I design activities that help them gather quotes from their text. Once students have collected enough evidence, they feel empowered to write the essay.
Too many students are intimidated by the challenge of producing “good” writing, so I encourage students to think of grammar and style as “final draft concerns.”* Because of my passion for grammar, I can’t easily suspend my grammatical awareness when drafting. However, I recognize that my best work comes when I have a clear idea of where I want to go—even if all the components of a piece are drifting lazily through my conscious mind like the globules in a lava lamp.
It takes a long time for my students to understand that grammar and style are not priorities of the planning stage. I suspect that their undue apprehensions about these features stem from previous classes, where their grammar errors earned them the label of “bad writer” or “careless student.” I’ve heard of nefarious practices that colleagues use to assess students’ grammar: some calculate individual deductions for every error while others remark on the quality of the grammar without offering advice. These techniques only intensify grammar’s reputation as a fearsome and mysterious power—flaunted by instructors and withheld from students.
I do believe in grammar as a kind of magic. In classical and medieval education, understanding the grammar of an object meant that you could have power over it: if you wanted to fix a broken horseshoe, you had to know the grammar of iron. My students think I’m stretching the truth here, but the etymologies of grammar and glamor are connected.** Therefore, understanding English grammar gives people the ability to weave magic with words—to have an influence. Effective texts can breed empathy and awareness: miracles worthy of sincere faith.
When I think of grammar as a kind of magic, I realize that my expectations change. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a violin to become a world-famous musician. I don’t expect everyone who can walk to have a masterful or confident gait. I realize that my grammatical understanding is a privilege fostered by my personal interest, solid education, and leisure time—which I fill with the reading of grammar books.
If grammar is magical, then the study of grammar cannot be remedial. Like the mastering of any other craft, grammar skills require lifelong dedication and practice. When we free grammar from the realm of the remedial, the slow, the sloppy, we begin to understand that we can all be bad at it, and we can all be good at it. Then we lose the need to punish without empathy those who break grammatical rules—to destroy the confidence of student writers because of a dangling modifier and a misplaced comma.
So my series of workshops are a dream come true. They offer me the chance to teach the magic of effective writing to those who want and need to learn. In these classes, deliberately placed outside courses where students focus on a grade, I can create a safe and mirthful space for exploring the structure of language.
* Though I practice this advice regularly, I did not invent it; Peter Elbow and Nancy Sommers articulate higher-order concerns in their texts on the writing process.
** This discussion of grammar can be found in David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.