Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grammar is Important... Just not as important as you think

Okay. I'll go back on what I said last week. I'm a hypocrite. Here comes the lecture:

"Kids don't even know how to write a sentence these days. I know it. I can see when they start working for me out of college."

There it is in a nutshell. A person's argument about the state of education. Education must suck because kids can't write a sentence these days.

I'm going to disagree with anyone who's said that.

First off, if a sentence is written so poorly you can't tell what they said, why are you interviewing, or even hiring, these people?

Meanwhile, I see it every day in my classes. Kids can write sentences. They sit down, they have an idea, they put it on paper. Rarely does a kid sit there and not write anything because they can't do it. They can write a sentence. They can put a thought on paper.

Here's what the person who says the quote that opens this blog post means though. That sentence isn't grammatically correct. There are typos.

And here's where I say it.

People who nitpick grammar and typos as a way to negate what someone says is taking the easy way out.

Grammar is not as important as thought. Grammar is there to help transmit thought, but must of us are smart and we can still see what someone means if the grammar is slightly off. If there's a mispelling, you can still figure things out. Usually, there's context.

Want an example? Okay.

"I don't want to change Mommy."


"I don't want to change, Mommy."

Means two different things, doesn't it? You're all uppity right now. Ready to give me an example like this.

Well guess what. Rarely is that going to be the only sentence in the piece. You're going to have more to go on to figure it out. Something that follows it up, like:

"Well too bad, Sally. What you're wearing is completely inappropriate for church."

Wow. I guess now you can figure out which one was correct, can't you?

See, people who nitpick grammar don't want to go deeper. They don't want think deeply about what a person is saying and either criticize or agree with the thought. They just want a simple reason to be able to write the person off.

Like just looking at test scores to analyze a teacher's ability.

I once said people take typos too seriously. Spelling mistakes are the least of my worries. When I said that a person responded, "It amazes me that someone in education can be so anti-intelligence."

I was incensed. I am not anti-intelligence. In fact, the person who said that is anti-intelligence. I want people to think about their writing. I want people to find meaning in what they say. I want people to get thoughts on paper, to think about what they're talking about and say something smart about it.

You want to make a spelling mistake? You want to misplace a comma? Fine. I'll figure it out.

When we teach writing, we go from from fluency, to clarity, ^to stamina^ to correctness.

You correct last. The importance is the thought and getting it on paper. The rest comes in revision and editing.

Does a mistake take people out of the writing? Yes. But you can get right back in it.

Am I saying a paper should be riddled with typos and errors in grammar? No. It would be unreadable.

But most kids going into the work force have a basic knowledge of grammar and usage. They can write a sentence. It's tough to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time... in anything. Especially in the internet--"I can look that up right now and prove you wrong"--era.

It's up to you to think about what they're saying more than how they're saying it. But that's not what people in power often want. They don't want people to think. They don't want people to criticize and/or create. They want them to be able to do the simple technical things.

Do what the man says, do it right and don't think too much about it.

That's why grammar is so important to these people. It's rules. And when you break the rules, what you say becomes invalid.

At least to them.

People who don't want to think.


Jay Stringer said...

We're on the same page on this issue.

You come at it from the point of view of a teacher who values the development of the idea over the rules used to express it.

I come at it from the point of view of a dyslexic kid who suffered from those rules all the way through school and into adult life.

If I fail to express an idea, then that's bad writing. But forgetting to cross a T or misplacing a comma? That's akin to me filling in an official form with blue ink rather than black.

I spend ALL of my reading time looking at patterns on a page and working out what they mean. The way I do this has bugger all to do with grammar or spelling, and everything to do with the context, the flow, and the idea being presented.

It kind of makes me think of the Chandler quote;

"All things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will evoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about god and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay honest." *

I've read plenty of very lifeless work where the spelling and grammar is perfect. I've read some very interesting and provocative work that has a few errors or cuts a few corners to get an idea across.

Is grammar unimportant? No. If you'r an author who struggles, like me, then get an agent/editor/proof-reader who can help out. Just make sure you trust them with your voice. If you're a self published (which is not "indie," get over it) author these days, hire an editor to help you look professional.

If basic errors are getting in the way of expressing your ideas, that is something you need to resolve.

But the idea is the important thing, that is what should come first. Everything else is simply waxing and polishing.

(* i have a strong opinion over where Chandler went wrong with this quote, which may be a blog in itself someday soon.)

Steven said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Stringer said...

Steven, your example of bad writing isn't bad because there's a missing comma, it's bad because the overall idea is unclear.

The writer of that piece has failed to communicate the the story clearly. It's a lack of focus and of telling details that's the problem, not grammar.

Jay Stringer said...

never mind ;)

Steven said...

Sorry. I think you're wrong here. I've been teaching English at the college level for a lot of years. If it were a question of a missing comma or two in a five page paper, you'd be right. If it were a question of a missing comma per page or even per paragraph, you'd still be right. But when it's a typo or missing punctuation every sentence, the writer is asking the reader to do more than half the work. As a professional writer, you wouldn't dream of asking the reader to do this. No professional would.

Let's not forget that every time the reader/teacher has to make a decision about the writer's meaning, they are imposing meaning on the text. Example follows:

We were over at grandma's house when my brother said he was hungry. I shouted out "let's eat grandma."

Is there a comma missing? You need more context right? Okay, here it comes:

My grandma was always a lovely person. Her skin was soft, and I remember her arms were always plump. In fact, I don't think there was a stringy muscle in her whole body. I remember once when
we were over at grandma's house when my brother said he was hungry. I shouted out "let's eat grandma."

Still need more context to be sure?

The point is that a typo or two may be nothing to me as a reader, but when it comes to grading, the amount of work I have to do to figure out the meaning reflects the amount of work the writer should have done.

Here's the extra context:

A few minutes later, there was grandma in the dining room with some gravy and mashed potatoes...

Now go ahead and impose your meaning on me and grandma...

Ultimately, I don't think you can so easily divorce things like punctuation and word choice and usage from meaning.

Dave White said...


I was just about to bounce on here to explain what Jay was saying. Notice what I said: We teach from fluency, to clarity to correctness (with stamina thrown in.)

Your context is unclear. I'm not sure why you're choosing to describe Grandma at that point in the story. The two thoughts don't lead into each other clearly. That's not a grammar issue, it's a clarity issue. You're correcting the thought here... not the rules of grammar.

If I'm correcting what you wrote, I'm not going after the comma. I'm correcting the way it was written and having student add more.

As a writer, we "show" and don't tell. That's asking the reader to do the work. The read has to make decisions from the context and descriptions given and come to a conclusion about what's going on in the story. The reader is always doing work while reading.

Gerald So said...

I think this is Dave's most articulate argument against grammar police, and I agree with much of what he says if we're talking about the earlier stages of writing, before the final draft.

Still, I ultimately agree with Steven because, outside the classroom, a reader has to assume that what's on paper or on the Web is a final draft. Readers don't get to see how much work went into the writing. They can only assume the writer's meaning from what they read. Readers bear some responsibility to interpret properly, but the writer must do everything in his power to ensure he is interpreted as he intends.

Dave White said...


This whole post is NOT about any professional writer.

Steven said...

Jay, I'll agree, but, if this came to me as a writing instructor, I'd have to decide whether or not a comma is missing. There are two different meanings possible. One of them requires that I alter what the student wrote and add a comma. If I do that, I'm making up the student's mind for him. Of course, if I'm grading during a face to face conference, I can just ask. And if I had ten students per section, I could do that...

When it comes to grammar, I think it's the instructor's job to teach it and give the student the tools he or she needs to make him or herself clear. This is not to exclude teaching about critical thinking, reading strategies, etc. but an English teacher who teaches no grammar is only earning part of the paycheck...

As far as writers getting help, I wholeheartedly agree. I have always offered more office hours than my contract requires, and I've worked in the writing center of whichever college I'm at for more than a decade. My experience, however, is that too few students bother to make use of the free service.

Gerald So said...


I understand you're talking about teaching writing to students. I'm just saying students' ultimate goal should be "professional" transparency between words and meaning.

The effort it takes to achieve this should be made clear to them as soon as possible, so that their personal standards of clarity will be high. If they learn to appreciate clarity in writing, who knows? Maybe one day they *will* become professional writers.

Dave White said...

By the way, Steven. I have over 90 students a year and over 20 in each class. I find a way to conference with each.

And Gerald, I find with students I'd rather get them to love writing by getting them to live what they're writing about. It's rarely because of the rules of grammar. And I'd argue grammar falls under correctness rather than clarity.

Steven said...

Dave, wait a moment. If I say grandma was plump, not stringy, how does that not flow into a sentence like "let's eat grandma"? Are you making the decision that I can't possibly mean something about cannibalism? Are you putting in a comma to make sense? Leave out the comma, and I think one sentence flows into the next fairly well.

Getting the writer to figure out what it is they want to convey is primary as you say, but conveying it requires that the student know how to spell, the meaning of the words they use, and how to punctuate. Those things are not at all unimportant (I don't think you mean that - I read the title of the post). Sadly, a lot of the students I've worked with over the years will understand you to mean "Grammar is not as important as you think."

Very often, the road to clarity in a student's paper (the representation of their thoughts) is through a grammatical change which absolutely must be explained to the student. Often, there's no way around explaining the reason for a comma.

Steven said...

Dave, I have 120 students per term and we meet for 160 minutes per week. That's two 80 minute periods. 28 periods per semester. Maybe you have more class hours to go along with fewer students?

Charlieopera said...

I was horrendous at grammar during my early school years and not much better at it until I attended college and one teacher (who would become my writing mentor) took the time to write one grade above another on weekly essays we had to submit. B/F ... sometimes A/F ... and sometimes C/F. Wake up call? You bet. The problem was by the time I reached high school (Canarsie in Brooklyn--now being broken up into Canarsie Campus because the school so poorly underperformed), all I had to do was make some sense on paper (and be captain of the football team). I would rather they had treated me with the same attention to detail as my college instructor did later on.

I’d rather see all states (all 50 plus D.C.) hire more English teachers and provide serious remedial instruction than ask the teachers we have now perform what Dave is doing. It is commendable, make no mistake, but a lot of extra work it seems and to what avail? If the practice doesn’t follow the student down the road (his or her next few teachers), the bad grammar will catch up to them sooner or later. I’m not sure grammar police is the answer, but students should be made aware when they are getting it wrong (i.e., do you point out the mistakes (or ignore them) for the student after you’ve deciphered the sentence?)

On a professional level, when stories/novels, etc. are that poorly written, I simply refuse to read them (or anything else by an author foolish enough to put it out without making sure I don’t have to do the work as a reader). Regarding ebooks I’m going to pay for, I extend my snobbery to formatting as well. If you can’t put the time in to make sure it’s right (or don’t want to), you can certainly pay the freight to a service to do so ... but charging people to figure out where new paragraphs, transitions begin (or suddenly having full paragraphs centered instead of left justified, etc.), that makes me a sucker for paying for the book. Never again. I’ve actually had this experience a few times now (and some of the authors are quite terrific). One or two I’ll give that second chance to, but I also no longer “buy” books that haven’t been vetted by publishers (no indie’s here unless I’m familiar with the author’s prior works).

Dave White said...

Again, if I were working with a student my agruement would be the description should be elsewhere. I'd want to know more of the story. That story is incomplete. My focus would not be the comma, but the content. Adding more to the story would be my focus. I think your description could come elsewhere in the story...earlier or later. I'd also ask-as a teacher-why you're telling me this story. There's nothing wrong with your description, but there needs to be more to this story.

Dave White said...

And for the record, I do correct and teach grammar, it's just not my #1 concern.

Jay Stringer said...

Which is more important;

Someone can bluff a couple of chords, knows a few basics of song structure, can pick up a guitar and has something to say.

Someone who can read and write music, knows scales, understands their singing range, but doesn't know how to express their ideas or emotions?

Charlieopera said...

So long as Dave is showing his students where they’ve made mistakes in their works, it is a bonus to them that he goes the extra mile and deciphers bad grammar. Kudos to his efforts.

Which is more important?

Why settle? There’s a lot of talent out there that will be diverted from its potential for any number of reasons. I suspect grammar will be the least of them (diversions).

On the other hand, any old anybody who puts in the time to write something (no matter the grammar OR content), amazon, et al, will publish it. One buyer (could be the author’s parent(s)) and he/she is a professional author. I guess under the “new publishing market” grammar need not be taught at all.

Gerald So said...

I've noticed that people who are against the teaching of grammar try to separate it from thought or meaning; I don't think it can be.

A person's message may be most important, but a proper knowledge of grammar only helps you make educated choices about how to deliver that message.

I think, at the heart of it, Dave doesn't like way he was taught grammar. I can't say I blame him, but that doesn't change the truth that grammar's purpose is and always has been to serve clear communication of thought, not impede it.

Dave White said...

I think, at the heart of it, if students can't even put a thought on paper because they freeze up about saying it correctly, then grammar is the least of my concerns. As far as being taught grammar, beyond diagramming sentences I don't remember specific lessons.

Dave White said...

Not to mention most current research agrees with me. As does the grading of-ugh-state testing.

Elizabeth said...

While I'm sure there are grammar pedants who really are *that* picky about a misplaced comma or honest typo here or there, that's not what I mean when I bemoan the state of grammar today. No, I'm talking about the proliferation of net/chat speak, especially as it starts to bleed over into things that don't have a 140 character limit.

Of course, in my opinion there should never be sentences that contain things like gr8, thx, 4gt, sum1, b4, etc. (legitimate acronyms (LOL, NSFW, BTW), while annoying when overused, aren't in the same class), not even in the Twitterverse or on your smartphone. Those aren't "typos," they are a deliberate, lazy, bastardization of language.

I get what Dave is saying, and I'm not talking about stifling someone's attempt to bring out their initial thoughts and creativity, to just get the ideas out on paper, if they can't do it grammatically perfectly. But if *all* you're talking about is the creative/drafting process then I'm not sure where the "grammar police" come into play. Unless you're talking about fellow teachers? Because the times I act as a grammar cop I'm talking about things that have been released into the wild and represented as final product, be they book, essay, cover letter, or simple email.

I don't care about the occasional honest error, we all make them (I've probable made at least one in this post). But it does reflect poorly on someone when they consistently take shortcuts with spelling and don't understand something like simple subject-verb agreement (He be/We be instead of He is/We are, that's like nails on a chalkboard to me).

And I think Charlie makes a good point by asking why it has to be an either/or proposition. No, you don't want to stifle creativity for the sake of grammar, but neither do I think grammar should be glossed over just because you can still decipher the gist of the thought through the forrest of errors.

Great post, Dave.

Joseph Finder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Clair Lamb said...

An English teacher of mine used to say that sloppy writing is sloppy thinking. That strikes me as an essential truth. Unless you understand why that particular word needs to go there, and why this word is wrong and that word is right, you don't even know exactly what you want to say. If you don't know what you're saying, how can you expect anyone else to?

Bad grammar isn't a matter of typography. Everyone misplaces the occasional comma. It's a question of structure and usage, and those are essential. It's worth taking the time to get it right, and it's a question of respect for your reader. The writer should take the time so that the reader doesn't have to, and doesn't have to guess at meaning.

Yes, I understand "Me and him went to the store," but I'm also making judgments about that writer that don't serve the writer well. An English teacher doesn't help his students by ignoring that.

Elizabeth said...

See! Forrest of errors. Damn you, Gump! :-P

Charlieopera said...

The dilution of standards in general, especially in education, are a bit frightening (so I’m with Gerald here). Grammar does serve to clarify communication of thought. The unvetted ebook phenomena, unfortunately, drives the dilution of standards across the board.

In the classroom, I don’t think it is wise to ignore grammar problems where they can be addressed early on. Doing what Dave does is going the extra mile (as did my college professor when he’d give me a grade for content/grade for grammar (usually an F). He would correct my mistakes in the paper itself (usually essays) so I could see what I had screwed up and how to correct it/them.

Kids today have enough distractions via technology. Their focus, I suspect, needs to be enhanced when dealing with standards of grammar/math, etc. How a teacher does that with so many in a classroom is tough to imagine; so many students/papers, so little time.

My fear is too many teachers do not take the time Dave is taking and let their students skip by without pointing out their mistakes, etc. I know firsthand this to be true (in both private and public school at grade, middle, high school and college levels). I personally know of one kid who was permitted to never use periods at the ends of sentence, leave words out of sentences, misuse words, misspell words, etc. He is now in his third full year of community college (plus two summer school sessions); he remains a freshman and is no better today at grammar/writing in general than he was at age 11. He’s gone through remedial classes up the ying-yang and has dropped at least 3 classes (including one this semester). The “papers” he has to write are usually at LEAST 50% plagiarized off wikipedia and although he only gets a C for his plagiaristic efforts (which are loaded with “his” undecipherable grammar between cut and pastes), it is nothing short of a crime that the teachers let that crap happen. Frankly, he shouldn’t be there, end of story. Unfortunately, especially at the collegiate level, education has become business and pretty much anyone can apply and get accepted so long as they can fund the fiasco. Another good reason to hire more teachers, by the way, to set up Remedial colleges (that we wouldn’t need as badly if we handled these problems much earlier on with remedial high schools, etc.).

Dave White said...

Actually, Charlie, I think the mistake a lot of Teachers are making is worrying too much it ONLY about grammar. They are not worrying about the thought in the paper, and instead filling the paper with red marks on spelling mistakes misplaced punctuation. That only serves to turn students off from writing. Work on their thinking FIRST. Then help correct grammar. If a student only sees red marks, they're not going to get their thoughts on paper because they're too worried about being wrong. Give a person the confidence to write. Then fix grammar. Get them over "writer's block." Get them to put writing on paper, even if it's not written with correct grammar. Too many students won't write because they freak out about spelling and grammar. And that's worse than misusage of a comma or a misspelled word.

Charlieopera said...

Actually, Charlie, I think the mistake a lot of Teachers are making is worrying too much it ONLY about grammar.

You'd know better than I about that, but that last example I gave is a fact I do know of. That kid went to a public grammar school, a private (Lutheran) middle school, then a public high school (Edison Votech) and is now in Middlesex Community. For him it has nothing to do with writers block, which is my point--not all students are going to aspire to writing; we should be concerned with their ability to write in general. His problem is he's been permitted (at home as well as school, make no mistake) to play the game without actually participating. The coaches (home and in school) haven't been doing their jobs. From what I hear from other college teachers who are professional writers, it is a pretty common occurrence to have several students who are absolute messes when it comes to grammar, etc.

I "hope" to find out more soon as I'll be starting my MFA this June so I can torture the little buggers down the road ... and I will be a bit of a stickler for all of it, I have to admit. Where I'm old school; people need to take the time (be serious) about what they pursue.

Lein Shory said...

One of the interesting things about this subject is that a lot of times you'll find that the people most concerned about grammar are non-writers.

The unfortunate thing about this is that a lot of them are hirers.

Back when I was teaching English and I would tell people what I did, I was told on at least three occasions by business owners how disappointed they were with the writing abilities of their job applicants, and the examples they cited were inevitably grammar-related.

Now a lot of these folks will cling to ridiculous rules like not ending a sentence with a preposition. In other cases, though, they notice things like subject-verb disagreement. But if your boss tells you not to end sentences with a preposition, you better damn well know what a preposition is.

So while I sympathize with the clarity-first argument and mostly agree with it, there's a real-world component here that English teachers and professors cannot ignore. True, there are likely a lot of executives out there who can't write a sentence to save their lives, but there are also plenty of people who are quite nitpicky, and if they're the ones who are deciding whether your students get a job, they're important.

As for fiction, well, hell, whatever works.

John McFetridge said...

Why settle?

That's really the heart of this issue, I think. And it's far from where we expected to be back in the 70's when I was in school.

A lot of this issue does seem to start with, "sloppy writing is sloppy thinking," and the fear of talking about what people actually think has left us with nowhere to start.

Dave is right, I think, grammar is important but not in isolation and that's how we're trying to deal with it.

As soon as we start to talk about what people think there is conflict and we seem to have no methods to deal with that - any internet message board will show us that, sure, the grammar is poor but, wow, the inability to have a conversation is a bigger problem.

(my v-word is "mastr" which I think is text spelling for master ;)

Jay Stringer said...

Never sure why the conversation becomes a 'one or the other' debate.

What you see in Dave's original is that grammar is important, but not the priority. Sane with me. The question I ask is, 'which is more important?'

Grammar is not the idea. Grammar is the presentation of the idea. Its the wax and polish.

We need to encourage the idea first. Then worry about the presentation.

I'm a product of an education system that got that the wrong way round and failed to engage generations of kids.

nelizadrew said...

I don't have these long-term students I can work with over the course of a paper or project. That said, most of them wouldn't stand for corrections or discussion of thoughts. It's a matter of "I did it. Give me a grade. I don't care." A writing prompt can't be harder than "favorite food" or the just write "iDk" and hand it back. "Creative writing" turns into "I ain't do that." They're the kids who often don't (sometimes literally) have a thought in their heads. When they compose a half-thought, it comes out as "datt hott grahh mii frendd beastyy she be lik da pusssy dey all wat ta hit dat lick ya fel mii i lik weedd an dat..." It's a lot of work just to try to find their thoughts.
(I really wish I knew what my coworker did with the All About Me assignment. Those were unreal.) You ask and they just shrug. They're the lost.

Dave White said...

Again, this issue is not if grammar is important. It is. I say it is. I work on grammar... but it's what Jay says... not as important as encouraging thought, dreaming, excitement and getting it down on paper. Too many people might read a cool idea, disagree with it, BUT NOT KNOW HOW TO, so instead they say "But you're missing a comma." or "You spelled 'the' as 'teh.'"

Stop being robots. Start thinking deeper.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dave. Let us never forget that the purpose of language -- the whole reason we clever, upright-walking monkeys invented it 50-odd thousand years ago -- is to communicate with one another. If a sentence communicate its idea, I would argue it has done its job -- no matter what grammatical sticklers might say about it.

Charlieopera said...

I'm confused ... are we talking about creative writing projects or writing in general (essays, etc.)? I think there's more slack to give in creative writing assignments, but essays, not so much. I wouldn't get overly excited about "teh" but enough of them might send me into raging stella mode (scary). Missing periods, unclear thoughts, etc., that might stretch it a bit too much for me. I remember a history teacher I adored at Brooklyn College (Mr. Jannen); brilliant guy, who marked on my essays: "You have a good mind but need to organize your thoughts better" ... he'd give me a B (took him 3 x's never got an A). My grammar by then was fine (post B/F's).

I think what is "important" is what Dave is doing (giving slack to one while POINTING OUT MISTAKES), but if we have to choose, I think that's a huge mistake; both are important.

I prefer to play jazz on my drums (unstructured and open to interpretation) but I love to listen to classical music (very little room for interpretation outside of pace--the notes are the notes). I'd say both are pretty much equally important and I think students can handle both (maybe not to perfection) but they should certainly give it their best shot and should be encouraged to do so (and not rewarded for not doing so).

John McFetridge said...

Charlie I sometimes think the problem is we usually skip right to creative writing without covering the basics.

Music is a good analogy, we don't ask kids to write us an original piece before they've learned the basics (if we ever ask them to write an original piece ;).

And by the basics I don't even mean spelling and grammar, I mean the basics of figuring out what you think about something and what you want to say about it.

My kids bring home all kinds of writing assignments - frankly far too many because I think they're just skipping over so many things it's all superficial. As Dave says, it's all so answers can be filled in on standardized tests - quantity over all else.

I think Dave is right that these things work in stages and I think sometimes we skip the first few stages - the thinking part, the ideas stuff - and rush right into expressing thoughts before they've fully (or even barely) formed.

Thomas Pluck said...

I have a degree in English Lit with honors from Rutgers. And I agree with you, as you can easily guess from my atrocious grammar.

Thoughts matter. Focusing on grammatical rules to the point that you put the ability to formulate and express coherent thoughts on the backburner misses the point of education entirely.

I can look up proper grammar in Strunk & White's, but I'd be hard pressed to Google my own brain and come up with an original idea.
Words have a flow. Sure, you must learn the rules before you break them, but if you bend them a little and keep a good yarn going, I'm not going to freak out about it.

I'm reading a great debut novel by a dyslexic writer, and sure, my inner English prof blanches at a sentence or two, but damn if he doesn't have me savoring every minute I read his story. On the other hand, I've read a few stories online where it looked like they weren't revised or edited at all, from all the typos. That can be distracting.

It's the power of the prose, not the angle or the dangle of the participle...

Dave White said...

We Rutgers, honors, English folk think alike.

John Kenyon said...

Coming very late to this very interesting discussion. It seems that Dave's point is that students should be encouraged to get their ideas out first, and then polish them later. That makes sense; why stifle a thought if the grammar isn't there to support it? When I hear my 3-year-old express himself in a rather interesting (and often amusing way), I repress my natural editor tendencies and praise it. He'll figure out how to express things more conventionally, and maybe his creative evolution will lead him to new, more interesting ways to express himself.

At the same time, while I would probably argue most stridently that good writing means never letting the medium get in the way of the message, I would need to offer enough exceptions that it might negate the argument all together. I'm thinking of reading Ken Bruen for the first time, picking up his cadences and lack of punctuation. No one would accuse Ken of being ungrammatical, nor would readers fail to get what he is writing. But it's certainly unconventional.

Grammar and punctuation, used correctly, are usually transparent. If you're drawing attention to them, as in the case of Bruen, it's usually for a reason. Students ought to be taught how to use it correctly, and be taught when that's perhaps not the best way to get the message across.

Charlieopera said...

Just back from the gym and missed the torrent of ideas first ... the point of education, etc. (The torrent of rain got me good.)

I don’t see how you don’t or can’t do both ... or how or why you would stress one over the other. You guys teach English in high school so you’d know better what you’re up against. From what I hear from those teaching freshman college classes, it’s a pretty abysmal task trying to decipher basic composition 101 essays.

My fear of the “ideas first” theory is how nebulous that can be. Do you (the teacher) then become a student’s therapist? How do you define it? Where do you draw the line? Does a student make progress from his idea to clarifying it by end of the term? What if he doesn’t? He can become a rap writing star, sure (pays better than crime fiction, that’s for sure), but what Lein mentioned before remains very true; the job market isn’t as liberal minded when it comes to job applications, etc.

I’m reading an application front-loaded with grammatical errors, it gets trashed.

Ken Bruen is Ken Bruen. There aren’t many Ken Bruen jobs out there (or those who could fill the spot should it open).

Anyway, it’s all interesting (so good post Mr. White). In any event, I don’t think one can be measured as more worthy than the other. I suspect (without any experience in the field), I’ll be a bit of a stickler for both if given the opportunity. When I read manuscripts, I always do go the extra mile in noting mistakes (or what I think are mistakes) when I see them and use Word’s tracked changes so the authors can see them (line editing). I also point out when I think something is being overstated or understated, gratuitous, etc. (editing).

Yous (my natural grammar) do realize this is the year my (and John’s) beloved New York State Buffalo Bills win the super bowl, right? Draft picks? We don’t need no stinkin’ draft picks.

Dave White said...

Okay guys, my basic point is this:

Too many people will ignore someone making a good point if they screw up the grammar.... even if that grammar error doesn't detract from meaning. And that has to stop. Thought and meaning are things that should be debated. So refrain from correcting people's grammar unless they ask for it.

mybillcrider said...

I taught English for 39 years. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar were to me three separate things. Some people who couldn't spell were terrific at sentence structure. (F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn't spell for beans. Look at one of his manuscripts sometime.) Some people who could spell perfectly couldn't write a coherent paragraph. Some people never did learn where to put commas. You have to work on a lot of different things with different students.

At the last place I taught, we graded on the system Charlie mentioned, with two grades on the paper, one for content and one for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I was never entirely comfortable with the system because it's hard for me to separate content from the other things. It's all part of the same product. I like precision. I like to see words in their proper places and commas used correctly. I like to see verbs that agree with subjects, to see pronouns that agree with antecedents. Maybe the first draft is a little rough, but sooner or later everything needs to be fixed.

But I'm an old guy. Keep off my lawn.

Charlieopera said...

Marcell Dareus! Nobody will run on us next year (whether they can grammatize or not). Go Bills!

Diana said...

I'm coming in late to this conversation. To give my background, I'm an engineer who loves to read. Two years ago, I started a small press publishing short stories. This is my experience as the editor.

The ability to grab the reader's attention and hold it until the end does not correlate to proper use of punctuation and grammar. When a story grabs me by the throat, yanks me into the story, and holds me there until I get to the end, I do not see the mistakes in grammar and punctuation, because I am too wrapped up in the story.

Punctuation and grammar are the easiest things in a story to correct. What an editor can not give a story is that quality that makes it compelling to read.

As a reader, I would much rather escape into a compelling story with a few misplaced commas, than slog through a technically perfect blahblahblah snoozefest.

Is grammar important? Oh yes, please teach your students proper punctuation and grammar. It makes it so much easier on me to edit. Because the drawback to not seeing the mistakes when I read submissions, is that end up purchasing the rights to stories that are then a bitch-kitty to edit.

As for the proper placement of commas, give me a break. The rules regarding comma usage are as clear as mud and vary depending on which side of the pond one resides. I've spent many hours with four grammar books open to the comma rules trying to figure out whether a particular comma was used properly or not. The books didn't always agree, so I would go with my gut instinct and take it out or leave it in.

My two cents on the topic. Aren't you glad that I popped in? :)

Dave White said...

Diane, I'm pretty sure you & I agree completely.

Diana said...

Dave, yes, we do agree. I'm just coming at it from a different angle.

Elizabeth said...

And I still think there's a HUGE difference between focusing on idea over grammar in a creative situation as opposed to a functional/transactional one. An actual example from the online edition of my newspaper today in the letters to the editor:

"As long as the [redacted] River runs through our city we are and alway's will have gator's. They'll travel through the canal's that branch off of the river so there is no way to totally get rid of the gator. It's a part of southern living so if you live near pond's, canal's or any other type of water you'll more than likely see a gator. To protect yourself and dog's you might want to put a fence around your property so if a gator is trying to envade it will be out in the open and easy to see."

In the space of a four sentence letter the person screwed up plural/possessive 5 times and had one outright misspelling (again involving an apostrophe). Sorry, but whether their point is valid or not that letter reflects poorly on them and makes them look uneducated. And *that* is the type of thing I am talking about when I refer to bad grammar. Repeated incorrect grammar and spelling (not an honest mistake, which we all make) in final products, not squelching the next Faulkner in a creative writing class by beating rules into them.

Dave White said...

I understand what you're saying, but to me--someone who's not a southerner... the idea that a gator might try to eat me or my dog... and how to protect them... is more important than some of the misuse in this letter.

Dave White said...

Point being, this person may not--probably doesn't--know usage well. However, I'm not going to discount her point. She may be a brilliant animal life scientist... and the info she sends could save a life. So because of that, I can't let her misuse distract me from her point.

Dave White said...

Also, Stephen, as my father said after reading this post... I think human experience is going to inform our reading too. So, unless we're huge fans of zombie films or the like, very few of us are going to imagine that "Let's eat grandma" is really going to lead to cannibalism.

Elizabeth said...

It doesn't distract me from their point. I read it. I get it. And I *still* think the writer comes across like an idiot. That letter wasn't long. It wasn't dredging something creative up from the depths of their soul. It was a four sentence letter to the editor that had at least 6 mistakes in it. That should be unacceptable, and as long as people are willing to shrug it off with a "Well, I understand what they mean" it will only continue to undermine the proper use of language in this country.

Dave White said...

Okay... if you want to get deeper... Who created these rules? Grammar changes almost yearly. Kids who've created text speak aren't wrong... they're just modifying. And most of them know they shouldn't use such things in a proper letter or piece of writing... but it's become second nature as well.

Does misuse make someone look less intelligent? Yes. Does that mean they are less intelligent? No.

I'm not good at math...

Elizabeth said...

I completely suck at math. Maybe it runs in the family. ;-)

Chuck said...

Great post, very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thanks for writing it! Generating really great commentary, too, which is always nice.

This post is about teaching kids, but I'll come at this as a freelance writer, and more significantly, as a freelance editor and game developer.

I've edited and redlined a lot of writer's material over the course of many books. Hundreds of thousands of words, and dozens of writers hired.

And I can say this: writers with bad grammar and great ideas are just as problematic as writers with impeccable grammar and bad ideas. If you have a great idea but the inability to express in a fundamental way, then the work to edit and develop busted-up language takes a helluva lot of effort and no self-respecting editor is going to churn through that muck. But the same goes the other way: if your writing is elegant but the content isn't, then the material there is just as broken.

In that situation, grammar (which represents clarity) is just as important as content. They go hand in hand, and one does not do well without the other.

Now, part of the issue here is that grammar is a sticky wicket at intermediate or advanced levels, and there I agree that grammar isn't as important. There, grammar rules remain "locked in" but, fuck it, they're still pretty loose to anybody but pedants and academics. Grammar has this big mushy middle, and there its significance drops off sharply, in my opinion.

What you're talking about though seems to be the basic fundamental layer of grammar: commas, diagramming a basic sentence, basic punctuation, basic writing skills. Those are, in my mind, critical. Critical in professional communication, and arguably that's what teachers are training students for, right?

Now, it's one thing if we're talking about one or two busted commas, or, instead, a demonstration of inability in terms of using or understanding commas. The first, as I think you're saying, well, that's fine. Everybody dicks up a comma now and again. But if a student doesn't seem to grasp the concept or execution, I'd assume that's an issue, yeah?

It's particularly important if they ever have aspirations to exist in a professional environment where the written word is in play. I don't want a guy building my house if he doesn't know how two bricks fit together. I don't want a chef with wonderful foodie ideas who can't cook a fried egg.

So, I don't know that it's an either/or thing, or an easily prioritized thing so much as -- it's all important. Right? Writing has a lot of moving parts, both as a mechanical act and a communicative one, both as a product of idea and execution.

IMO, YMMV, etc.

Again, neat post. Nicely said. I think we agree, actually, I just... I dunno. I like to yammer in comment windows, apparently.

-- c.

Elizabeth said...

@Dave - The proper use of an apostrophe to make a possessive doesn't change yearly. Nor does the proper use of their/there/they're or your/you're or to/too/two. Last time I checked the proper spelling of words wasn't up for debate yearly either. I'm not talking about pedantic things like tricky comma or semicolon usage that still trips up even the best every now and again. I'm talking about the building block basics.

Dave White said...

It used to be 90's... now it's 90s.

Dave White said...


When I refer to clarity, I don't refer to grammar. You can be grammatically correct and still not be clear, as I am when I say "We teach from fluency to clarity, to correctness." I didn't define what I mean by each word, so it is less clear.

I can also be clear, but be grammatically incorrect. "Me and you should hide in the basement."

To give a very simplistic idea of what I'm saying, a lesson may go like this. I give a creative writing assignment. I have a kid who can barely write, but can get his thoughts across verbally.

Here's what I might get:

"Basement you. Hide. Me."

Now, if I saw this, I'd ask what the kid meant and he'd tell me. And I'd tell him to write it like he said it.

Then I might get:

"Me and you should hide in the basement."

Okay, now I know what he means. It's much clearer. So after he writes his entire story, I'd sit him down and talk over his grammar with him.

Now he's a 7th, 8th, or 9th grader, so he has an idea about grammar. So I'd say, "How should this be written correctly?"

And he'd write, "You and I should hide in the basement."

Good. But I'd ask for a word that can combine the phrase "you and I."

He'd maybe think for a bit and then write:

"We should hide in the basement."

Fluent, clear, and correct.

Febe Moss said...

Wow! This post blew me away. Love it!

John McFetridge said...

It's funny it took so long to get to, "I suck at math." why is that we treat math and grammar so differently?

Or am I wrong in thinking that there isn't the same stigma attached to poor math as there is to poor grammar?

Which is funny because it's unlikely the financial collapse was caused by poor understanding of grammar...

Years ago I read a book called Innumeracy which seems even more relevant today.

Dave White said...

John, thanks for picking up on what I was saying about sucking at math.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, but I don't think most people who joke that they suck at math mean they can't do simple addition, subtraction, and division, which are the math building block equivalents of grammar building blocks.

Sucking at algebra or geometry is more akin to having difficulty with semicolons or understanding the difference between the em dash / en dash. They are all more complicated concepts, and all less commonly encountered in daily life.

Gerald So said...

Reading Dave's responses, it strikes me that he is defending a way of teaching grammar that has worked for him. If it has worked, if it has made students better writers, that's great. That's what we all--as teachers and writers--want in the end.

My point of contention with Dave's approach is its limited scope. It works for students in the particular situations Dave has mentioned. By the same token, the ways many of us were taught grammar worked for us, so you can't say one method is absolutely better than the other.

A measured approach sounds best, but then, one reason students' difficulty with grammar persists is that certain teachers through the years have said, "This level of clarity is good enough to pass." That's how later teachers get students who argue, "I got an A in English last year," and the teachers have to say, "That was last year."

Eventually, hopefully, all students graduate, and to come back to Dave's title, I think it's most important to give them the highest standard of clarity possible. This standard can't be reached if questionable usage is continually given a pass.

I say this as someone who received a high school-wide award for excellence in English and went on to receive Cs and the occasional B in first-year college composition. My prof's higher standard was the best wake-up call I could have had. I've used his standard since then, and it has never failed me. That's teaching.

jcombalicer said...

Hi Dave,

Good day.

Can I quote you on my book? about your stand on grammar and language coz PEOPLE say I DON'T DESERVED to be an AUTHOR.
I'm encouraging them!
it's not meant for Them.