Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Miller on Grammatical Illiteracy

Over at The Boston Globe, Babson College English professor Kara Miller discusses the poor grammar skills she finds in her undergraduate students. Excerpts:
[Another] thing English teachers realize is that correcting students' papers is tremendously time consuming. I constantly do battle with myself to spend less than 20 minutes on a paper. At meetings, instructors are often urged not to exceed 15 minutes, but I frequently end up spending double that. This can be a genuinely frustrating experience: 50 papers stacked on the coffee table, 10 in the finished pile, and an entire afternoon gone.

But I can't help it; there's so much to correct. Subjects don't agree with verbs. "Its" and "it's" are used interchangeably. "They are" is confused with "their." And facts too often function as topic sentences. Many of the students whose work I correct are smart, motivated, and quick to incorporate suggestions. But they have either forgotten the rules of writing, or they never learned them in the first place.
Read the whole thing. It's tempting to opine at length about the lazy younger generation and why won't its members ever apply themselves long enough to learn something as essential as grammar, dagnabbit. Truth be told, though, my own grasp of the language in which I write and speak is less tight than I would like. I don't think I stray into any of the errors Miller mentions. But I can never remember what a predicate or nonrestrictive descriptor is without looking it up in my grammar book, and dangling modifiers still throw me for a loop. That's troublesome, because if I want others to delight in the words I write, oughtn't I to know better the rules that govern my mother tongue?

(Picture: CC 2008 by
photobunny; Hat Tip: Writing, Clear and Simple)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

An interesting fact, however, is that grammatical proficiency has been shown to be directly proportional to comprehension. That is, if you take a student who (in theory) has a complete understanding of grammar, and thust him or her into a confusing or bewildering situation, his technical grammar (verb agreement, tenses, &c.) will vanish. Conversely, if you teach that student about his subject, without correcting his or her grammar, you will end up with a much more grammatically proficient final product.

This isn't to say that a complex knowledge of grammar isn't important (especially in creative writing, where precision is paramount). But it is the reason many upper-level teachers are trained to minimize their correction of grammatical mistakes, and only focus on recurring issues.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We spent many hours on grammar when I was in school. Practically the whole of middle school was given over to it. I doubt they can spare that attention now with the new subjects that have come along.

Loren Eaton said...


What an interesting idea! I suppose proper grammar can be less an internalized system than another subject to remember. Perhaps that's why it falls away in such circumstances.

Loren Eaton said...


I know I certainly didn't learn as much grammar as I would've liked. I remember a few classes on it in sixth grade, but after that we were on to other things.

George said...

My wife taught elementary school students for over 30 years. It was the constant burden of correcting grammar and spelling that she doesn't miss in her retirement.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm not at all surprised. Grammar feels so dry that no one wants to learn it, but a lack of it can really mess up your writing.