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Archive for April, 2012

Responding to Grammatical Errors in Student Writing

Every writing teacher has had the experience: you receive a student essay riddled with mechanical errors—spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You struggle to comprehend every sentence, and you have to re-read each paragraph three times. Where do you even begin to address the mechanical issues?

In this post, I’ll discuss the strategies I use to respond to grammar issues when commenting on student writing—whether the essay presents a grammatical nightmare, or it just needs to be slightly polished.

First, as with everything in teaching, I am strategic and targeted. Early in my career, I was tempted to mark every error, out of a combination of annoyance, a need to justify my grading, and a genuine desire to help. I’ve learned to resist the urge to pour my time away like that. Since students improve their skills incrementally and often without explicit teaching, marking up everything will mainly leave them anxious and overwhelmed.

Instead, as I read, I identify the systematic patterns of errors the student is making, as opposed to random outliers. Usually, I know after reading a page or two. For instance, does the student repeatedly leave endings off words? Do they repeatedly put commas where ending punctuation should go? Do the repeatedly write oral-sounding sentences that ramble out of control? The kinds of errors that rear their heads only once or twice warrant little attention.

When addressing grammar, we face a common red-herring—confusing fuzzy issues of grammatical taste for errors. Such issues may fall into the category of personal idiosyncrasies and pet-peeves (“regardless” vs. “irregardless”), artificial “rules” of prescriptive grammar (don’t split an infinitive), or other issues of usage, style, or formality where respected writers differ (“It was me.” versus “It was I.”). Probably the most frequent issue of such fuzziness involves certain instances of comma usage.

As much as possible, I avoid getting mired in these areas of fuzziness. Calling students’ attention to these issues—at the least—wastes their time with trivia, and—at the worst—gives them needless confusion and paranoia. If you don’t know whether a grammar issue is truly an error, assume it is not.

As I notice the types of errors, I distinguish low priority issues from high priority. I draw the distinction using a combination of four criteria:

  1. Higher priority errors tend to disrupt readability. For instance, when two sentences run-together, it interferes with readability much more than a missing ending on a verb. Likewise, when an oral-sounding sentence rambles out of control, it disrupts readability much more than a sentence phrased with a tinge of awkwardness.
  2. Higher priority errors tend to seriously obscure the student’s meaning. For instance, errors with hyphens or apostrophes rarely obscure meaning, while errors where it’s unclear what a pronoun or another anaphoric expression refers to usually do.
  3. Higher priority errors are those that are more prevalent. When the student learns to successfully address that one type of error, they will make a sweeping improvement.
  4. Higher priority errors are those that will be addressed in my classroom curriculum. Students are more likely to improve on an error in their writing if it’s also covered in class instruction than if it’s only pointed out in commentary on their essay. (And if a given error occurs in many students’ essays, I consider whether it warrants coverage in classroom instruction.)

As I decide which types of error to address and which to downplay, I choose how to mark each instance in the essay, if at all. From most to least directive, here are the options:

  1. Correct the error for the student.
  2. Circle the error, label it, and tell students where in the handbook the issue is discussed.
  3. Circle the error and label it.
  4. Circle the error.
  5. Ignore the error.

In deciding which option to use, I try to find the right balance between being directive and being non-directive. On one hand, I don’t want to do all the work for the student, and I know that students will learn a lot that I don’t explicitly teach. On the other hand, I want to empower the student with the knowledge of how to identify and fix crucial errors, rather than leaving them to blindly grope through their confusion.

Which option I use depends primarily on the student’s strengths. Many of my students at higher levels (first-year composition or beyond) need less directiveness. They can easily turn to the handbook and correct grammatical issues on their own. Many of my students at lower levels (basic and developmental) grow frustrated with the non-directive approach. They know their writing contains errors but they simply lack models for how to address the issue. Finally, students with ESL backgrounds lack certain types of grammatical knowledge we assume of native speakers, and may need to be explicitly told—for instance—which idiomatic phrase to use.

Which type of response I use also depends partly on the type of error. Spelling errors rarely demand the more directive responses. But when a sentence is larded up with many needless words, the student may need to be explicitly shown which words could be omitted.

For many types of errors, I shift from directive markings to non-directive markings as I progress through the essay. I use the more directive options for the first few times the error occurs, and then gradually shift to the more non-directive options as I continue reading. This option shows students a constructive example of how to fix a given type of error, and it also allows them to retain ownership over their writing.

I’ve found that my basic and developmental students need to be taught what to do with my markings on grammatical issues. For instance, they need to know what common proofreading marks and abbreviations mean, and how to use them when revising. They also may assume that when a teacher who evaluates their essay is proofreading exhaustively.

I strategically note places where the grammar and mechanics work well. If a student makes a specific type of error, in addition to pointing it out, I might also point out the places where they got the same issue right. Not only does this boost their confidence, but if gives them a positive model for how to correct the problem. There’s much truth to the claim that much of what students learn comes from seeing models of success, rather than from being corrected on errors.

My end comments sum up the high priority grammatical issues I identified (usually only 1 – 3), and I discuss them in the context of the skill of proofreading. For instance, I write “proofread more carefully for comma-splices before you hand your next essay in,” rather than “work on comma-splices.” Though this distinction may seem trivial, it encourages students to approach future writing assignments from a writing-as-process perspective.

Further, this approach assumes that many errors are performance errors (which the student could easily have fixed if they took the time), rather than knowledge errors (which the student could not fix on their own). With performance errors, students simply need to be reminded to include in their writing process ample time for proofreading.

In my end comments, I go out of my way to note when a student generally does a good job of applying the mechanical skills we’ve covered in class or when they’ve improved on a particular grammatical issue over the prior essay. With grammar, teachers tend to focus too much on error and see past the countless places where students get the issue right.

Links!

I just added a page full of links, which lead to a variety of additional resources on grammar for writing teachers. I am selective about the links I provide. Rather than aiming for exhaustiveness, I aim to provide high quality information from authoritative sources.

Do you know of a resource that should be added to this list? Send me a comment.

Review of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

Peruse the bookstore section on Grammar and Usage and you’ll see we’ll never face a shortage of experts who tell you how the English language works and how to deal with issues of usage. But most of these books suffer common shortcomings:

  1. They’re not researched. In fact, they’re based less on English as real writers actually use it than on how the writer imagines everyone ought to use it.
  2. They repeat what’s already been said a thousand times.
  3. They’re hyper-focused on error, a focus which has a way of inculcating paranoia amongst writers who follow the one-size-fits-all dictums too rigidly. Imagine the way a runner might tip-toe through a minefield. That’s the kind of writing these other books breed.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage bucks the conventions of the genre. It’s scholarly, ambitious, and innovative.

“English usage today is a discourse,” this book begins, and that key observation is central to its approach. This observation might seem obvious to research-oriented Linguists, but other grammar handbooks (Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers, for instance) are written in a bubble outside of this discourse. They’ll read like theirs is the first and the definitive treatise on correctitude in English. This attitude is part of the tradition of grammar books, which has changed surprisingly little in the past 300 years.

Merriam Webster’s diverges from the tradition by stepping back and summarizing the history of the discourse in a way that puts modern quibbles in a perspective that’s missing. It turns out that most of the contemporary controversies date back decades, if not centuries. The authors cite liberally from usage guides, language commentators, and armchair grammarians to bring them into conversation, sometimes in ways that make the “experts” sound clownishly ignorant. For instance, the editors note how commentators have been wrongly predicting the death of the subjunctive and the death of “whom” for over a century!

This book doesn’t pronounce in over-simplified strokes what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” This choice will certainly narrow the readership. Such authoritative pronouncements can soothe the anxieties of students and novices, but correctness is not a fixed binary. Language changes. Attitudes change. Many critics confound style and taste with correctness. Correctness is a living, changing polarity.

Merriam Webster’s never falls into the correct/incorrect trap because the editors are well-grounded in the systematic study of language. How refreshing! The truth is that the writers of most grammar handbooks are not research-oriented linguists—they’re writers. Noteworthy writers of course can teach us a lot about writing, but when they try to explain the maddening complexities and variations of the English language, they step outside their expertise. It’s like childcare workers giving advice to the public about the details of pediatrics.

Whereas other handbooks generate example sentences to fit their prescriptions, Merriam Webster’s is grounded in real-life usage. 20,000+ illustrative citations are drawn from their corpus to show how respected and published writers actually use English. For every tsk-tsk rule of writing that your seventh grade English teacher might have taught you, this book provides ample citations of writers that follow it, and writers that flout it. Thanks to the editors’ diligent research, we can see that Shakespeare would have failed a quiz on how we are traditionally taught to use “who” and “whom.” When critics label the adverb “hopefully” as the “un-English” result of “hack translators,” the editors point out that their assertions are “very ingenious but…not supported by a shred of evidence.”

An alphabetical listing of 2,300+ entries covers just about every sticking point in the English language that any language-watcher has ever commented on. I’ve read dozen of grammar and usage guides (which never agree on what should be listed)  and Merriam Webster’s covers nearly every controversy I’ve heard, plus many I never imagined existed. Even seemingly uncontroversial usage issues involving words like “claim” and “gap” have made it into this book. More complicated issues—such as the choice of accusative or nominative pronoun—are broken into separate sub-issues.

The discussions are scholarly and nuanced. They always steer clear of all those directives that are part of the grammar book tradition, and instead allow you to draw your own informed conclusions.

The Art of Selecting Example Sentences and Practice Sentences

When teaching a grammatical concept or editing skill, it’s never sufficient to explain an abstract concept to students and expect them to “get it”. When grammatical issues are illustrated with example sentences, students learn via their innate linguistic competence. An abstract generalization is made concrete through an actual sentence of the English language. When students apply the skill to sentences in practice exercises, it helps the concept sink in deeper.

Selecting good sentences for examples and practice exercises is an art. As a linguist composing research papers, I illustrated my arguments about the structure of language with carefully chosen example sentences. Now as a writing teacher, I’ve adapted this skill into my teaching. In this article, I will discuss the principles for choosing pedagogically effective sentences for examples and practice exercises.

Avoid spontaneous examples. Many teachers generate example sentences on the fly, in the middle of a class discussion to illustrate a particular point about grammar. Generally, this is risky, as the first things that come to mind are rarely the best. When teachers don’t carefully consider which example sentences to use, they easily end up confusing their students. Instead, have example sentences in advance.

With spontaneous examples, teachers risk picking an example that does a poor job illustrating their point. For instance, I once wanted to illustrate the plural possessive construction, and my first example was something like this:

 1. The boys’ houses seem nice.

This example will confuse students with its distracting complexity. Both the possessor (“boys”) and the thing possessed “houses” are pluralized, with the latter being irrelevant to the possessive. A better example would be:

 2. The boys’ house seems nice.

But even #2 can be improved. The ending on the verb “seems,” which closely resembles the plural possessive ending, will confuse some students. An even better example sentence would eliminate this confounding issue:

 3. The boys’ house looked nice.

Spontaneous examples don’t appeal much to students. It’s hard to spontaneously generate an example that avoids confounding complexity and that contains the relevant grammatical structure and interesting content. Spontaneous examples tend to hew closely to a short, prototypical grammatical structure, and the content is bland or stereotypical. For instance, you get sentences like:

4. John gave Mary a gift.

These examples don’t connect to topics students might find interesting or to topics the class is covering. In practice exercises, they leave students bored, and as illustrative examples, students find them unmemorable. Illustrative examples that students tend to remember (for their humor or relevance) work better.

Alternatively, some teachers pick example sentences on a topic relevant to students. These sorts of examples are commonly chosen for published workbooks. For instance, in Susan Fawcett’s Evergreen: A Guide to Writing With Readings, many of the sentences in a given exercise focus on a particular topic, such as student financial aid, academic success skills like note-taking, or biographies of role models for students. These examples can educate students on student success skills and teach them something new, which makes them less boring. However, some students might feel patronized by examples that seem to talk down to them.

For another possibility, the teacher can excerpt sentences from an assigned reading, and present them to the class. These examples show students how successful, published writers deal with the grammatical issues under discussion, they build a reading-writing connection, and they help students do grammar in a more contextualized way. Though sentences from published prose typically don’t illustrate grammatical errors, I like doing close readings on them with students to critique their stylistic shortcomings, such as wordiness, convoluted structure, opaque word-choice, etc. These issues are well illustrated in the following sentence, excerpted from Malcolm X’s Learning to Read:

5. “I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in his criminal conquests.”

Malcolm X’s style in this sentence causes most students to overlook how accusational and controversial the ideas are, at least until they do a close reading on it in class. Students enjoy chopping famous authors down to size, especially if they found the assigned reading difficult.

As a downside, sentences excerpted from difficult assigned readings might contain problematic levels grammatical complexity. If you want to make a point about a particular grammatical feature, a sentence that’s too complex may confuse students or distract them from the relevant issue, as was the case with #1 and #2 above. Also, students may feel that the author writes in a style far too sophisticated compared with student writing, which makes the sentence difficult for students to relate to or to aspire to as a model for their own writing.

For many teachers, it’s appealing to use sentences excerpted from student writing. These examples, of course, most realistically illustrate the types of grammatical issues relevant to students. They can also provide positive encouragement for what students are doing well, and can illustrate grammatical issues that are not traditionally covered in handbooks and other assigned texts.

But in a classroom setting, using students’ writing is fraught with risks, even if it is presented anonymously. Of course, students may object to their writing being shared with the class, especially if it’s being criticized. One impolitic comment from the teacher or another student can wound the author’s ego. This is less of an issue, however, if the class is advertised as a workshop, or when working with more advanced students with higher confidence.

Students should consent to their work being used in class. If a teacher mass-reproduces (part of) a student’s writing, they may be violating a students’ copyright over their work. This issue is avoided, however, if you are making a single copy of a student’s work for pedagogical purposes, such as transcribing a sentence from their essay onto the chalkboard. Whatever the legal issues, few students would sue their teacher for violating their intellectual property rights, though many would feel unhappy at seeing their work reproduced without their consent. Note that the legal departments at many colleges now require that teachers have students sign a consent form before their work is reproduced.

As an elegant solution, a teacher could excerpt a sentence from student writing, and before presenting it to the class, edit the sentences for pedagogical purposes. Such edits can preserve the grammatical structure while trading out a few content words and pruning out segments that are pedagogically irrelevant. For instance, you could start with a student sentence like:

6. “My sister is always on her phone, her kid cries and cries and it is like she doesn’t hear him or don’t even care because she’s to focus on her phone than on her son which I think is bad because her kid is little and he needs more time with her.”

This sentence contains a number of types of errors (underlined), and you might not want to overwhelm students by presenting them all at once. Let’s say you want to just focus on the punctuation errors and not the errors with incorrect word endings. You could start by editing the sentence to remove errors with word endings:

7. “My sister is always on her phone, her kid cries and cries and it is like she doesn’t hear him or doesn’t even care because she’s too focused on her phone than on her son which I think is bad because her kid is little and he needs more time with her.”

Then you could anonymize the sentence by trading out some of the content words:

8. “My cousin is always on his iPod, his daughter cries and cries and it is like he doesn’t notice her or doesn’t even care because he’s too focused on his iPod than on his daughter which I think is bad because his daughter is little and she needs more time with him.”

These changes anonymize the sentence and sidestep the intellectual property issues, while still maintaining the sentence’s student-like feel. (If #8 isn’t anonymous enough, you can keep changing it in similar ways.)

Whatever examples we use, teachers must strike a balance. On one hand, we want to present sentences that are simplified enough to remove confounding issues distractions and to clearly present the grammatical issue under discussion.  On the other hand, we want to present sentences that contain the grammatical complexity that characterizes naturally occurring writing. To negotiate this balance, I structure activities to move from grammatically simple sentences at first to more grammatically complex sentences after students have understood the general concept.

As a final step (one that’s often forgotten), teaching should be scaffolded to move students from working with individual sentences in practice exercises to the more realistic task of working with their own prose. It’s crucial that teachers build this bridge. Too often, teachers give students practice exercises, assume students will transfer the skills into their writing, and then wonder why they didn’t. In my experience, only the most diligent students make this jump on their own. Hence, the common criticism that “traditional grammar instruction is a waste of time.”

To facilitate this transition, students to be given some practice exercises that more closely resemble their own writing, such as exercises where they proofread paragraphs or multi-paragraph excerpts. Finally, many students need to explicitly be reminded throughout the term to apply the concepts when they proofread their own writing assignments. I actually include on essay prompts the grammatical issues students need to be proofreading for. I also allot students class time to do this proofreading on their own, while I’m there to assist.

How do you choose example sentences when you teach? Send me a comment!

The Canon of Grammatical Errors, and How it Blinds Teachers

April 22, 2012 3 comments

The teaching of grammar centers on a canon of grammatical errors, which shapes the way it is taught in important ways that teachers often overlook. In this post, I’m going to define this canon, point out what it makes us overlook, and illustrate it through an example from student writing.

What do I mean by “canon”? In the study of literature, “the canon” consists of the “great works” that are traditionally considered worthy of study. For instance, you’d have:

  • Shakespeare
  • Hemingway
  • Steinbeck
  • etc…

With grammatical errors, the canon consists of a set of established errors that are traditionally covered in handbooks and teaching lessons:

  • subject-verb agreement
  • pronoun reference
  • comma-splice
  • etc…

Of course, the list above illustrates just a small sample. We could add dozens of errors to this, including the canon of errors for ESL students. Nonetheless, it’s striking how often the same canonical concepts are covered over and over in handbooks and textbooks (and lesson plans). If you don’t believe me, go to your local bookstore and see for yourself.

How does this affect our teaching? The canon delimits the range of grammatical errors considered worthy of study. Many handbooks are organized around lists of these errors. Most teachers base their grammar instruction around errors within the canon, and point them out as such when they comment on students’ writing. Grammatical errors that fall outside the canon cannot be easily categorized, and are thus deemed unimportant or overlooked. Teachers lack the language to talk about them, so students are left to grope through these issues on their own.

Underlying the canon we find ethnocentrism. Just as the canon of Literature has been attacked for focusing too heavily on the work of dead, white, men of European descent, the canon of grammatical errors can be attacked for focusing too heavily on the grammatical errors most common to middle-class students who are native speakers of English and who have strong backgrounds reading and writing formal written English. It misses many of the errors found in the writing of ESL students, generation 1.5 students, and students whose writing is closely modeled on their patterns of speech.

Let me give an example of a common grammatical error that the canon makes us overlook. I frequently notice errors in the writing of my students who come from ESL backgrounds that look like this:

 1. “…it is easy for parents to avoid their children to eat fast food…”

A native speaker would have expressed the same sentiment as:

 2. “…it is easy for parents to prevent their children from eating fast food…”

As teachers, we know that #1 contains an error, but the canon provides us no straightforward way to categorize it. We might circle it and tell students to “fix the grammar,” but we have no specific way to explain it to students. So we don’t. Strong students who are native speakers know how to fix it. Many others have no good way to figure it out.

To understand the nature of the error in #1, we need a quick lesson in linguistics: many verbs allow certain types of clausal complements, while disallowing others. In the prototypical case, which most ESL students learn early in their studies, verbs such as “know,” “say,” and “think” can be followed by a (finite) clausal complements that begins with “that”:

3. I know/said/think that it’s a nice day.

Some verbs (“want,” “need,” “ask,” “say”) can be followed by clausal complements that are infinitives:

4. I want/need/asked/said to go home.

Things quickly get more complex. Many of these same verbs also allow a noun phrase to intervene between the verb and the infinitive:

 5. I want/need/asked the boys to go home.

 Schematically, the clausal complement in #5 looks like this:

6. … [noun phrase]    to VERB …

And some verbs (“prevent,” “ban,” “stop”), which can express a kind of negation over their clausal complement, go with an even more complex structure:

7. I prevented/banned/stopped the kids from eating fast food.

Schematically, the clausal complement in #7 looks like this:

8. … [noun phrase]    from    GERUND …

Given that the clausal complement in #8 has three discrete parts, its grammatically complexity far exceeds that of a clause that starts with “that,” which is a reason that ESL students have all sorts of trouble with them.

With this in mind, we can better understand the error in #1. Actually, the sentence contains two errors. First (and less interestingly), the student chose the wrong verb—“avoid” rather than “prevent.” Second, and more crucially, the student tried to follow the verb with an infinitival complement, even though neither “avoid” nor “prevent” allow such a complement.

Right now, the canon provides no label for this sort of error, even though many ESL students struggle with it. More broadly, ESL students tend to struggle with choosing the correct type of clausal complement for lots of other types of verbs. Students who make these sorts of errors repeatedly would benefit from being explicitly taught which verbs take which kinds of clausal complements. If one pattern of grammatical error predominates in a student’s writing, they benefit from targeted and explicit instruction on how to address it. Once students learn the pattern, they can begin to generalize from it.

If I had more space, I could discuss all sorts of other grammatical errors that are ignored by the canon and that are specific to the writing of generation 1.5 students and students whose writing is modeled on their patterns of speech. I could also discuss a parallel canon of grammatical terminology, and what it prevents us from talking about. I might do that in a future post, but for now, I don’t want to belabor the issue. I just want to make the point that we need to be aware of the ways in which the canon of grammatical errors covertly shapes how we teach.

The Slippery Slope of Defining Grammar Terms

When you discuss grammatical concepts in your writing class, you usually need some sort of meta-language to refer to the relevant items. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of minimizing jargon in the teaching of grammar. In the current post, I’m going to talk about a common problem that comes up when textbooks or teachers define grammatical terminology for their class.

Simply put, many grammar terms are defined in relation to other grammatical terms, which—in turn—are defined in relation to other terms. In practice, this means that when you try to define one term, you can find yourself sliding down a slippery slope where you have to define many more, which leaves many students overwhelmed.

Let’s illustrate this with a simple example: say that you want to define what a “complete sentence” is to your class. At first, this sounds easy. Traditional grammar and many textbooks would say that a complete sentence consists of a “subject” and a “predicate.”[1] Next, you’d have to define each of these terms. To define “subject,” you might have to define things like:

  • “noun”
  • “article”
  • “subject-verb agreement”
  • etc.

To define predicate, you might have to define:

  • “verb,”
  • “auxiliary verb,”
  • “direct object,”
  • “indirect object,”
  • etc.

The discussion might need to include discussion of how words can join together form a phrase, and how different phrases can in turn contain other phrases. You might even have to talk about how “conjunctions” can join two complete sentences together to form a larger sentence. And along the way, you’d have to answer any questions raised by students, when they attempt to apply these definitions to the messiness of actual sentences in English. Pretty soon, you’re practically writing your own treatise on the grammar of the English language!

Think about how much mental work it would take students to follow all this, understand it well, and apply it to their writing. It would take weeks of carefully sequenced and scaffolded teaching and practice work for the students. There is so much technical reasoning for students to follow that all but the most diligent will simply glaze over. When critics attack “traditional grammar instruction,” what they’re actually attacking—I think—is something like the kind of grammar teaching I’m describing above. And with good reason.

Although most writing teachers know it’s a poor use of class time to spend so much time covering grammar terminology, the issues I raise are still important because most teachers do need to have something to say about grammar. And when we want to make some point about grammar, it’s too easy for us to find ourselves sliding down the slippery where we define everything. When I was less experienced as a teacher, it happened to me. This semester, I have observed more than one conversations where well-meaning teachers ended up on a definition binge with students.

As I said before, one key to effective grammar teaching is minimizing the amount of jargon you present to the class. When you do use jargon, make sure it has an intuitive name, which can minimize the amount of time you spend giving a definition. If you have to give an explicit definition:

  1. Be parsimonious.
  2. Avoid complex technical definitions.
  3. Avoid definitions riddled with exceptions and stipulations.
  4. Avoid definitions which depend on students knowing lots of other terminology.

Often, the best definitions depend primarily on a carefully chosen set of example sentences that illustrates the concept. These examples minimize the need for highly technical definitions, and they work by appealing to students pre-existing competence with the language.


[1] This is not 100% accurate, but it’s one of the definitions that’s traditionally presented in many textbooks.

Fun with Minimal Pairs

To linguists, the concept of the minimal pair is crucial to identifying generalizations about how language works. A minimal pair occurs when you have a pair of words, phrases, or sentences that differ in form in just one small way, and that small difference points out a broader generalization about the language and the crucial elements that bear meaning.

A carefully picked minimal pair can also function as an excellent pedagogical tool for the writing teacher. They can quickly illustrate key points about the language while you avoid getting bogged down with complex jargon, explanations, or formalisms. As I discussed in a prior post, it’s crucial to minimize jargon in the teaching of grammar.

First, to illustrate what a minimal pair is, let’s start with a simple example—the pair of words dog and dogs. In form, the two differ in terms of their suffix, and in meaning, the two differ in terms of their plurality. This minimal pair points to the larger generalization that to pluralize many words in English, you simply add the -s suffix.

Though few students need to be taught the patterns of pluralization, we can use more complex minimal pairs to illustrate generalizations that are more relevant to students. For instance, in published writing many authors will use a comma to set of introductory words at the starts of sentences, as in #1:

1. While eating, the dogs barked.

Strictly speaking, the comma is optional after introductory words, but the comma becomes more necessary when it helps the reader to avoid mis-parsing the structure of the sentence, as we see in #2:

2. While eating the dogs barked.

Consider #1 and #2 a minimal pair that illustrates to students why it’s important to set of certain kinds of introductory words with commas. In 1, which lacks a comma after the introductory words, the reader is led up the garden path. As students read, many will briefly think the sentence describes animal cruelty and chuckle nervously. Then when they will realize that that interpretation doesn’t fit with the structure of the rest of the sentence, they will stumble for a second and then re-read the sentence and figure it out. This minimal pair helps point to a larger generalization that punctuation placement is more than an issue of correctness; it can also make the writing easier to read.

Next, consider the following sentence, which is a run-on:

3. I quit my job on Friday I left my wife.

Many students will stumble when they read this sentence, and if they have been taught about run-on sentences, they might identify it as such an error. Then I will ask students how to fix the error. Some students will propose:

4. I quit my job. On Friday I left my wife.

Others will propose:

5. I quit my job on Friday. I left my wife.

There might be a spirited debate in the classroom about which is right. Actually, both 4 and 5 are “correct.” The issue really comes down to what meaning the author intends to get across. Together, 4 and 5 form a minimal pair, which illustrate how the placement of a period is more than an issue of correctness. It can also show where one idea ends and the next begins, which allows students to express themselves with greater precision.

Another (near-)minimal pair that leads to a similar point about how punctuation disambiguates meaning is:

 6. Woman without her man is nothing.

7. Woman: without her, man is nothing.[1]

 Could these sentences be more antithetical? Sentence 6 is—of course—misogynistic, while 7 is a statement of female empowerment.

Students find minimal pairs memorable and humorous, and I notice they tend to remember them better than they do more abstract grammatical concepts. At the same time, they illustrate key points about grammar and punctuation without the need for complex, technical explanations or elaborate definitions of terminology—which tend to confuse many students.


[1] Thanks to one of my students for bringing this pair to my attention.