Grammar: Eureka Moments are not Created by Staying within the Lines

One of the first things I casually mention to my students on the first day of class as we go over the syllabus is that I honestly genuinely do not care as much about grammar as I do content. Technicalities bore me to death, and I consider grammar technicalities. I am nowhere near saying that reading a paper with atrocious grammar does not bother me. But the reason for a student’s quality of grammar could be numerous. English may not be one’s first language and they may still be struggling to learn all the intricacies of the English language. They may have not been fortunate enough to go to a school that had quality resources to educate their students: the tools for music, science classes, updated textbooks, extracurricular activities or college readiness programs – never mind grammar, of all things. They may struggle with a learning disorder. But do any of these possible reasons necessarily mean that these students are not capable of holding rich, deeply complex thoughts and ideas within their minds? Certainly not. Can horrible grammar get in the way of understanding a student’s ideas effectively? Yes, and I clarify to them that if it gets in the way of conveying your ideas effectively, or hinders me from understanding your ideas, I will recommend that you go to the Writing Center, or a tutor. I write this on the feedback for their essays. But otherwise, I do not want to hold grammar over my students’ heads in such a way that the fear of a grammar mistake cripples them or hinders them from being able to get their thoughts down onto paper or screen. Students have enough anxiety about writing. Writing is difficult enough of its own. The process of trying to extract something you cannot touch (thoughts, ideas and emotions, which can be haphazardly scattered or vague or blurry) – from your mind, and produce them into enough of a legible, coherent sentence that captures effectively what you hold in your head – is enough of a difficult process on its own. (Was that a long, rambling sentence? It certainly was, but right now I am more concerned about trying to get my ideas down).
I do not want the fear of grammar to begin to censor my students’ thoughts and ideas. Once they have written down whatever they can get down, once we can enrich the writing further or clarify the ideas, then we can work on grammar, or even get past it if that is possible. To me, it is the last step; not really the first.

I think the reason why grammar is associated in society with “laziness/sloth/uneducated” – as Patricia Dunn writes – is more due to a societal association of grammar with law and order, strictness and rigidity of rules. Laws and rules can be important — but not when the richness of thought, humanity, morals, and free-flowing ideas are sacrificed at their expense. There have been many social, political and educational laws and rules throughout history that were morally wrong. It was once a practice to punish Native American children in school if they spoke their own native language over English, even in a casual conversation. Segregation was once the law, slavery was once the law and the rule. (I am going overboard with the examples but I am sure you get the point). So to abide by the principles of only law and strict rules, without leaving the freedom of space to allow for ideas to flow, is I think ignorant and can even be dangerous. So I really do think that the lamenting of the loss of grammar isn’t always accurate, but also negligent. I think upholding grammar as the only standards of education has more to do with an association of grammar to law and order than anything else. And sometimes, we need to break the rules – or at least not glorify them – if it means creating something genuine, true and meaningful. The “eureka!” moments of scientists, artists and writers throughout time did not occur when they always stayed within the lines, but sometimes, outside of them.

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