Weighing In On The Grammar Debate

As graduate students, writing instructors, and WAC fellows, we’re well aware of the distinction between “higher order” and “lower order” concerns in writing. We have been told (rightly so) to prioritize those higher order concerns in our grades and comments, especially when dealing with students who struggle with writing or are non-native speakers. In this way, writing becomes less about adhering to the rules of standardized English, and more about demonstrating critical thinking, understanding of course content, and synthesis of ideas.

Still, we all know that this is often easier said than done—some papers are so riddled with grammatical errors as to make comprehension nearly impossible, regardless of how good the student’s idea may be. More importantly, no matter how fervently we may defend a descriptive view of grammar, the reality is that our students will encounter other classes and scenarios in which there is no leniency for non-standardized English, which can create the fear that we may actually be doing our students a disservice by not correcting grammar.

So what do we do with grammar in our writing courses?  Although I am not suggesting there is one readymade solution, my approach has been to maintain grammar as a lower order concern without minimizing its importance both inside and outside the writing classroom. While I do not comment on every single grammatical error I encounter in my students’ papers, I will identify the two most pressing issues and mention them in my end comments. I attempt to offer brief explanations of the grammatical rules when possible, or include links to grammar sites addressing that particular concern. I do encourage these students to visit the writing center and to inform the tutor of the specific issue (e.g., “my instructor said I need help with subject-verb agreement,” rather than a vague “I need help with grammar”). Very rarely do I penalize students for grammar issues, unless it’s abundantly apparent that I’m dealing with a student whose grammatical errors rise out of lack of proofreading rather than a genuine struggle with the conventions of formal written English.

I’ve also found it productive to discuss this issue of grammar with my students, not just within the context of my grading policies but also within the larger context of social power and linguistic discrimination. At the beginning of the semester, as I’m going over the grading rubric for their first formal essay, I explain to my students that I will always prioritize their ideas over grammar in their papers. At the same time, I tell them, grammar is not not important—purposeful and informed grammatical choices can strengthen an argument and invigorate prose. Beyond its use as a rhetorical tool, however, grammatical standardized English—like whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, etc.—serves as a gatekeeper to cultural power, and deviation from the standard is often interpreted as low intelligence or competence. While I in no way seek to perpetuate this literacy gatekeeping (and actively attempt to push back against it in my own grading policies), I nevertheless want my students to at least understand the reality of the academic, professional, and political world into which they’re entering. I’ve found that having this conversation with my students not only stimulates a lively class discussion about language, privilege, and power, but it also has the long-term effect of alleviating some of their insecurities about writing and encouraging freer, more expressive prose.