II.  Correctness

          It is an unfortunate reality that most college students do not have a good command of English grammar or of the rules that govern English usage.  Some college students make so many serious errors in grammar and usage that they would have failed third grade in the 1950s, when I was in grade school!

          But even our best students, even those who write the essays that most teachers now give A's and B's to, make errors of the sort that no third-grader would have been allowed to get away with when I was growing up.  We see sentence fragments, comma splices, fused sentences, mixed and illogical constructions, faulty parallelism, subject-verb agreement errors, pronoun-reference agreement errors, incorrect pronoun case, misapplied punctuation, and atrocious misspellings in all of our students' papers.  We see more of the most serious errors in the weakest papers, but we do see surprising errors even in the best work that is submitted to us.

          Would you be surprised to learn that most graduate students in English are unable to write prose that is not riddled with errors in grammar and usage?  And forget about students who are taking degrees in education, including those with majors or minors in English.  They are often on the edge of illiteracy themselves!

          No wonder students are not learning to write correct sentences--most of their teachers can't write correctly, either.

          But we teachers are not all in our twenties and thirties.  Some of us learned to write at a time when grammar was taught well, and when correctness was required in our writing.  We are constantly under pressure to go easy on our students, to be lenient with them when they make errors in their writing.  But those of us who know better should find a way to resist such pressure.

          Of course, we don't want to be unreasonable or unfair.  If we were as strict as we should be about requiring correctness of our students, we would never give a grade above a C, and most of our students would probably flunk.

          But that doesn't mean that we have to simply ignore grammar and usage errors.

          I tell my students that college writing should be virtually error-free.  It should, you know.

          But of course they can't make their writing error-free, because they haven't really mastered the rules of grammar and usage.  Oh, sure, they could find some middle-aged person to correct their errors for them before handing in their papers, but that wouldn't help them learn to write correctly.  If I am going to help them overcome their own characteristic errors, I need to know what errors they are making.  If someone else cleans up their prose before I see it, I won't know what they're doing wrong and I won't be able to help them write better.

          So I tell them to do the best they can on their papers, proofreading and revising for errors to the degree that they are able to do so.  They can turn work in before the due date if they want to, and I will mark the errors myself (as well as making suggestions for other sorts of revision).  Then they can correct those errors before they get a grade on their paper. 

          That way they do have some middle-aged person correcting their errors for them, but since I am that person, I will be able to keep track of their progress in mastering the usage conventions or grammatical rules that have been giving them difficulty.

          And progress is exactly what I expect.  No one makes all that many errors.  Almost all students make a handful of errors (seldom more than ten or twelve, often much fewer), but they make them frequently, so that a 1000-word essay might be marred by fifty or more sentence-level errors.

          Whenever I encounter an error on a paper, I mark the error and indicate its technical "name" (subject-verb agreement problem, pronoun-reference agreement problem, semicolon fragment, comma splice, etc.).  Then I direct the student to the article on my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website that deals with that specific error.  If I encounter an error I haven't posted an article about, I will write one and get it up there as soon as possible so the student will have access to an explanation that he can use to correct his error. 

          On that same website I have two articles dealing with correcting grammar and usage errors in one's own writing,
"Correcting Mechanical Errors in Your Writing"
and "Is There an Easy Way to Overcome My Own Grammar and Usage Problems?" 

          The first one deals with correcting those errors that one knows better than to make, but that keep slipping into one's writing anyway.  For example, I know that when composing by hand, every time I need to use a "there" or a "their," I will inevitably write the wrong one.  Every single time.  I never make that mistake while typing, but I never fail to make the mistake when writing.  So I proofread specifically for that error when I write.

          On the other hand, when I type (though never when writing), I always--not sometimes, always--type that for than,
for people, gramamar for grammar, articel or atricel
article, etc.  So when I type, I always proofread specifically for that type of error.

          The second article is about fixing the sorts of errors that one makes because one doesn't know the rule of grammar or usage that governs the error.  These are more difficult to correct, but by no means impossible.

          Again, no one makes all that many errors.  If a student can identify what errors he makes (and since I mark every error with its technical name every time it appears, he knows not only what errors he makes, but also how often he makes them), then he can study the correct forms and make a conscious effort to eliminate those errors.

          I recommend that my students focus on one or two errors at a time.  By working systematically (and diligently) over the fifteen weeks of a semester, a student can go far toward cleaning up his sentence-level errors.  If a student wants better than a C in my course, he either needs to avoid making such errors at all, or to show me that he is making significant progress in cleaning up those errors that he does make.

          I am realistic.  I know it's almost impossible to correct a lifetime's habit over the course of a single semester.  A person who writes participial phrase fragments (or comma splices, or any other sort of error) at the beginning of the semester will almost certainly still make such errors at the end of the semester, especially when writing in class.  But I should be seeing a clear reduction in the number of such errors by the end of the term.  That sort of progress, combined with strengths in other aspects of essay-writing, is what will allow me to give a grade higher than a C for the course.

          I also believe that writing with mechanical weaknesses that go beyond a certain level should not even receive a grade of C.  If a student's papers are rife with multiple serious errors--e.g., a combination of several of the most serious errors, like sentence fragments, comma splices, subject-verb agreement errors, illogical constructions, tense errors, and atrociously misspelled words--then he needs to be given D or an F.  He is not ready for college-level writing, and should not be given a grade that suggests he is a competent writer when in fact he is nearly illiterate.

Grading Standard:  A student's grade should be tied to the level of correctness in his writing and to the progress that he makes in learning to correct those errors that he does make.
Improve Your English Grammar with WhiteSmoke
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