Grammar, Punctuation, and Mechanics

Ranzdals’ Guyde to Gramer, Puncturation; and Mikanix

It’s usually not that bad—most students only misspell “grammar” in one place—but you get the idea; your students will need your help. Some no doubt are native English speakers whose previous teachers didn’t have the energy to insist on “Standard Written English.” Others are second- or third-language speakers who may be acculturated to US society but still have multiple problems with written communication. Either way, you’ll want to consider different possibilities for helping your students, either during the drafting process or in conjunction with “final” essays.

‘Teaching’ Grammar

Experts disagree on whether grammar (punctuation, etc.) can be taught or whether it can only be learned in context. In your classroom setting, you might choose to spend some time looking at language issues once students have a near-final essay.

Grammar rules become more real if they can be immediately put to the test. In my own classes, I review sections from Diana Hacker’s well-written Rules for Writers on days before essays are due. That way I can review a section on punctuation, for example, and ask students to scrutinize their own writing for those very same items. Sections I find especially useful:

Clarity: 9, 12, 16, 17

Grammar: 21, 24, 27

Punctuation: 32, 33, 34, 35

Mechanics 44, 45

MLA, Citations, Works Cited: 57, 58, 59

Grading Papers

Although I warn students that they need to submit their essays in Standard Written English for full credit, they often submit work riddled with errors. When I start reading an essay that’s full of problems, I comment on the essay in terms of content, change to a contrasting color, and then re-read a small section (usually the second page) for grammar. I circle errors I think the students can figure out for themselves and write in corrections for items that are difficult. (Prepositions, for example, are especiallly tricky for non-native speakers.) 

Students are tempted to ignore grammar issues unless they see immediate consequences. In other words, if you want your students to edit more carefully, you have to hold them accountable. I subtract a third of a grade if I find a few errors on a page, two-thirds if there are a few errors per paragraph, and a letter grade is there are mistakes in most sentences.

Helping Individuals

Although the Writing Skills Improvement Program  and the Writing Center are valuable resources, the most effective way to help your students is to sit down with them one-on-one and review a paragraph of their writing together. You might ask them to read a sentence out loud to see if they “hear” missing punctuation. You might ask ‘What is the rule for….’ to trigger their memory. Even if you only work with students once or twice over the course of the semester, your personal attention will motivate them.

Few students have a hundred different kinds of grammar/language problems; most have ten problems they repeat ten times. If you can help your students eradicate patterns of mistakes, their writing will improve tremendously in a short amount of time. Note that many students have transference problems from other languages: Asian languages don’t use articles; British punctuation rules differ from American ones. (Note that such problems extend to rhetorical choices; in many cultures, it’s considered impolite to blatantly state your point in a thesis statement.)

Although students are resistant to grammar, I find the nuts and bolts argument best: “If your résumé is full of mistakes, you won’t get the job.”