Grammar Tips

How to Sail through ESL Grammar Problems
Without Getting Swept off the Boat
D.R. Ransdell

Most of you will have a few second-language speakers each semester, and these students may have a bewildering and sometimes overwhelming array of problems writing English. What follows are a few suggestions for helping these students with their drafts. Note that unless your students are solid writers, they probably can't handle linguistic and rhetorical problems at the same time. Ask them to address content in early drafts and language in the penultimate one. Grammar should come last since they might have to change the content anyway.

If the students have lots and lots of mistakes, don't try to address them all even though students may ask you to. Instead concentrate on errors that prohibit understanding or are so wrong that they are distracting. (Native speakers might read over “exagerate” without noticing anything, but “dauter” for “daughter” will trip them.) Note that while students might be able to get some help with editing from the Writing Center, they will feel more encouraged if you take some time to work with them one on one. Try coaching them through part of a draft and then asking them to edit the rest by themselves.

Note too that Asian and European students have often been taught British English. Not only are there slight variances in vocabulary and expression (in England, people say “let’s have a coffee”), but punctuation rules are also different. Encourage them to become familiar with this new American style.

Mistakes to Address

 Problems that must be fixed:

 Phrases that make no sense (they may contain multiple problems):

  • But, comparing with who they are different form may be another problem.

 Mistakes that jump out because native speakers rarely make them:

  • Mr. Johnson did all the work hisself.
  • The author wrote the article good.

 Verb tense and agreement (problems in this area may affect comprehension.):

  • Sports has always been a very important part of my life. (It looks like “sports” should be plural.)
  • Last week the lawyer explained he has looked for more evidence. (When did this happen?)
  • The country with the flag of the rising sun is yet filled with mysteries that make them different. (multiple problems)

Sentence punctuation (run-ons and fragments are distracting because they force readers to stop and re-read):

  • Margarite Deming uses pathos she reminds the reader what it was like when she was a little girl.
  • Last week when I read Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Problems that should be fixed:

Articles that need to be added or stricken (many singular nouns don't take articles, some plural nouns need articles, etc.):

  • My brother has the proficiency in English.
  • I went to Philippines in August.

  Additional punctuation:

Punctuation that dictates meaning:

  • Shoot John!

[To John, of course, a comma would make a tremendous difference.  (I stole this example from Stanley Schmidt's “Silent Killers,” in the September 1998 edition of Writer's Digest.)]

Commas after long introductory dependent clauses:

  • Before I went to the racetrack that afternoon I had a bad premonition about how things would turn out.

Commas before conjunctions followed by long independent clauses:

  • Some people don't believe in aliens but there is some scientific research that shows a few logical explanations.

Commas around non-restrictive relative clauses:

  • My brother who works in Switzerland loves ballroom dancing.

[A nonrestrictive clause gives extra information. When the information is unnecessary in terms of identifying the noun it modifies, the clause takes commas. In the above example, whether or not the clause is restrictive depends on the author's number of brothers. Since I only have one brother, the phrase is nonrestrictive. Commas should go around “who works in Switzerland.”  If I were using the information about Switzerland to distinguish between brothers who lived in different countries, the phrase would be restrictive; it would provide necessary identification and hence would not take commas.]