The Writing Center


WAC Faculty Newsletter

The Writing Center and WAC Program

Cleveland State University, RT Library 105, 687-6982
Prof. Mary McDonald , m.murray@csuohio.ed


I have long been puzzled why everyone thinks grammar is easy (it may well be), but few students have a good grasp of it. I’ve even had English majors fight with me in the Writing Center that they liked a sentence the way they wrote it, even though it contained unmistakable grammatical errors like dangling participles and missing referents. This newsletter considers a few facets of this problem of helping students to change their perception and to work on their grammar. A warning: this information is depressing!

Reason 1: Our Way of Teaching Grammar Highlights “Easy”

One of my interests is the history of how English grammar is taught. In the 1700’s and today, the focus of grammar instruction was on getting students jobs. Therefore, much of the more sophisticated topics in grammar are wholly eliminated from grammar texts. Even if you use a term like “antecedent” or “objective case,” few students will know what you are talking about. By contrast, in the 1900’s, accuracy or correctness was the focus, and that is where diagramming is found in texts. Diagramming sentences has been shown to be the most effective way to discuss English syntax.

David Mulroy, in his book The War Against Grammar, writes that when the focus of grammar instruction was the learning of great Latin literature, and grammar was simplified for this purpose, it spawned all the great writers of the 1600’s including William Shakespeare. I would add, however, that these students were given practice in translating sentences back and forth between Latin and English.

The take home message? Grammar needs to be connected to an important purpose, such as connecting with and respecting an audience. If you frame it as such, your students might begin to understand. Practice in syntactical exercises (e.g., sentence combining, diagramming, copying well written texts for brief intervals, reading well written materials in students’ majors and hobbies) is very important.

Reason 2: If Grammar Is “Easy,” Then I Don’t Need to Think

Analytical reasoning is at the heart of fixing most grammatical and syntactical messes. Since the 1960’s, however, the teaching of English in high school has often been the teaching of reading, and when writing is taught, it can often be presented as expressive—that is, the feelings of the writer transcend any concern for the reader’s need for clarity or correct grammar. Therefore, many students resist the idea of analyzing their own prose. Add to that the 19th century romantic notion that writers are inspired (I’m not saying they aren’t, but that isn’t the whole of it), and you have a defensive student, clinging to the first draft and refusing to edit. Maddening.

If you can handle a bit more depression, let me add that most of today’s English and education majors very much love to read, not write, and many think that expressive writing is writing. This tendency leads to many more students in the future who will not know grammar.

Reason 3: The Braddock Report

In 1963, the Braddock Report, using one- and three-year studies, said that grammar was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing. One and three year studies are not longitudinal; however, enough English teachers agreed that formal grammar was not taught in schools after 1963 (except in Catholic schools and in Missouri). The loss of the teaching of formal grammar coincides with open admissions and with expressivist writing. Today as students in grade schools are faced with tests of grammar, this issue of how and what to teach becomes important again.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Students’ Grammar?

Here are some ideas for improving students’ grammar:

  • For native speakers: isolate 3-5 mistakes, name them, and have students work on them.
  • For non-native speakers: these students need Writing Center tutorials 3x a week for several semesters where tutors compare syntax of the native language to English syntax.
  • For Black English vernacular: contrast the Black English usage to American edited English usage (e.g., “had came” to “had come”).
  • Assign a well-written newspaper or magazine.
  • Have students review each other’s papers for errors.
  • Raise your standards—tell them you will hand the paper back if you find more than a certain number of errors.
  • Encourage students to learn grammatical terminology, and a great web site for this is You can tell students to google the word grammar and it’s the first site. This web site is so great that it even has a Power Point demonstration of diagramming! Please check it out—it’s a huge site. Quizzes are great too. Many are interactive and fun.
  • Tell your students that English is one of the world’s most complicated languages, and because it can do so much, it deserves to be treated with great care and respect.

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Director: Prof. Mary McDonald


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