Regular Doses of Common Sense™

Student Op-Ed Blasts Grammar Police Teachers

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Are grammar police teachers taking too much fun out of writing papers? Is it fair to put “too much weight” on grammar in student grades? One student sounds off on teachers focusing on too much of a difficult thing.

that really doesn’t do this piece justice. An essay at Dakota Student, promoted as the “student news site of the University of North Dakota”, asks why student grades should be decided solely on punctuation.

Solely? I’m already a bit suspicious here.

I’m even more suspicious when I see that the piece begins with a reference to a popular grammar-related meme that makes its way across social media fairly regularly: there’s a sketch of a little old lady placed between two sentences. The top sentence reads, “Let’s eat grandma!” The second reads, “Let’s eat, grandma!” Below that, in a bolder, stenciled type, is this: “Punctuation saves lives!”

For those who don’t get the joke — and I hope there’s no one reading this who doesn’t get the joke — the missing comma in the first sentence implies the suggestion that a family is about to turn cannibal towards the grandmother, while the second sentence is an invitation (or suggestion) to the grandmother that it’s time to dine together.

The comma makes a huge difference. That’s the way grammar works.

The op/ed calls this graphic an example of “the importance that some professors and student [sic] put on grammar”.

I think that should be students.

From this horribly bumpy start, it goes on to explain the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar, the former being the way grammar is supposed to be used according to the basic rules of English, and the latter being the way grammar is often actually used in practical conversation.

As an example, the piece gives a popular target of the grammar police: a sentence that ends with a preposition. I’ve written about this topic before, suggesting that it’s often a bad idea to do so, but that there are reasonable exceptions. Ending a sentence, for example, with at, as in, “Where’s he at?” ranks in the “Always a Bad Idea” category, for example.

The problem, as the op-ed correctly points out, is that in spoken English, things happen. There’s an understanding of what is being expressed even if every rule in the book isn’t being followed.

In the Grandma examples with which that op-ed piece begins, however, there’s the possibility of a genuine misinterpretation of what’s being said. It’s not “okay” to drop commas if doing so potentially changes the meaning of what’s being said.

The op-ed goes on to criticize teachers who feel that prescriptive grammar is the only way to grade. That’s an interesting idea. It’s even, to a point, a reasonable idea.

I never once had a teacher who was so focused on grammar that she would give the student a failing grade for simple grammar errors that, while annoying, didn’t make the paper difficult to understand. Maybe such teachers exist. I’m sure they do.

But in all honesty, I’d really like to see for myself a paper did everything it was supposed to do, made an excellent argument about its subject, but received a failing grade solely on the basis of one grammar error too many. Can an otherwise-stellar paper really receive a failing grade because of five or six grammar errors? And how bad are those errors?

That’d be my first question.

If students aren’t being grading on “readability”, but rather “on grammar alone”, as the paper suggests, I’d have to wonder if we’re talking about a history class or an English class.

That’d be my second question.

Grammar is important. Few people who aren’t good at it likes to admit it. Sometimes, those who have a reasonable grasp on how grammar is supposed to work don’t like admitting how important good grammar is.

But just ask Grandma: something as simple as a comma can have a profound difference on what’s being expressed. A writer’s responsibility is to communicate in a manner that makes it easy to be understood.

If that lesson were to become off-limits in a school setting, our language would be in serious trouble.

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