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Where do Errors Come From?

storkLet’s consider some common explanations of the sources of linguistic error and disfluency, explanations I see reiterated over and over (both explicitly and explicitly) in handbooks and the professional literature. Even if errors are being blamed on text messaging or bleeding-heart teachers or whatever else, the source is reducible to one of the following:

1. The Standard Theory: students make errors because they don’t fully comprehend the grammatical patterns of English, as well as the idiomatic expressions and the conventions of usage. Students simply lack linguistic knowledge. This view has been around since the invention of writing, and most teachers still turn to it as the default.

2. The L1-Interference Theory: multilingual writers commit errors when they over-generalize the grammatical patterns of their native language (L1) to English. (Similarly, this theory suggests that students will transfer the grammatical patterns of native dialects of English into their school writing.) This theory comes to us courtesy of our colleagues who teach ESL and foreign languages.

3. The Speech-Based Theory: many students write in ways that are closely modeled on the way they talk or the way people around them talk.  Standard written English differs substantially from speech, which is fragmentary and halting, and which is aided by para-language and contextual cues. This theory is often connected with scholarship on “Generation 1.5” learners.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” theory: students commit many errors that they know how to identify and fix. Their performance in the writing task misrepresents their actual competence—their true knowledge of the language. Errors emerge when writers are tired or distracted, when they simply fail to invest enough time, or even when they don’t know how to use their word processing software effectively. Other times, our brain just hiccups. This theory is usually attributed to the early work of Noam Chomsky.

5. The Complex Ideas Theory: students who otherwise write grammatically clean prose make more errors and write more clumsily when they are asked to write about complex ideas or use academic registers that they can’t fully control. The complexity of the writing task overloads their ability to process syntax. Amongst others, this theory is articulated particularly well by David Bartholomae in Inventing the University.

Different theories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the source of any given error can usually be explained by some combination. For instance, #4 and #5 both suggest that errors often belie our true abilities in ideal circumstances. Or a student may lack linguistic knowledge about how standard English enables two sentences to be joined (#1), and might thus fall back on the patterns of their native language (#2) or the patterns of their speech (#3). For any given error and any given student, discovering the source requires thoughtful inquiry.

Still, as teachers, we often lack the time to conduct such inquiry, so we make hidden assumptions about where errors come from. We should be aware of these assumptions, because each theory suggests something different about how to respond:

1. The Standard Theory suggests that we should teach students the grammatical patterns of correct English, and how these patterns are distinguished from the incorrect. Such pedagogies typically include teaching students “rules” or having them correct errors and/or demonstrate correct usage in workbook exercises. Alternatively, students could be encouraged to spend lots of time reading grammatically correct prose, so they can internalize and unconsciously imitate the patterns.

2. The L1-Interference Theory suggests a similar response to the standard theory, except that instruction should be tailored to the specific errors and disfluencies that characterize particular groups of ESL students. For instance, if students speak a native language that lacks the inflectional morphology on verbs that characterizes English and they tend to leave endings off of verbs, instruction should focus on the patterns of English inflectional morphology.

3. The Speech-Based Theory suggests that students need to be made more aware of the differences between the conventions of spoken English and written English. Since the two are essentially different dialects of the same language, the approach suggested is akin to #2 above. Since speech-based errors suggest students have been under-exposed to the written word, students should be encouraged spend lots of time reading, similar to #1 above.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” Theory suggests that students need to learn the steps and strategies for effective proofreading. Further, they may need to learn academic success skills, such as how to budget ample time for their writing process or how to manage the mental exhaustion of academic work.

5. The Complexity Theory suggests—somewhat counter-intuitively—that errors and disfluencies often represent a necessary sign of linguistic development, rather than a cause for concern. When writing lacks errors, the assignment has failed to challenge. Many errors will resolve themselves without a teacher’s intervention as students grow more experienced and comfortable with writing tasks of greater complexity.

Again, no one way is “right.” In my own teaching, I integrate a little of each into my classroom instruction. Once I have a good understanding of a particular student or group of students, I tailor my instruction to their grammatical needs.

Out with “Teaching Grammar,” in with “Sentence-Level Pedagogies”

February 15, 2013 1 comment
Chalkboard at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

Chalk at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

After many years of thinking, I’ve decided the term “teaching grammar” is problematic. If I could control how English is used, I’d abolish this term from the vocabulary of writing teachers.

Here’s the problem: first, the term “grammar” is in many ways ambiguous, as I’ve discussed at length in this post and this one. It could mean anything from helping students learn to proofread for run-on sentences, to sentence diagramming, to rhetorical style, to teaching students Chomskyan transformational grammar.

If something doesn’t help us disambiguate, each speaker interprets “grammar” however they want. And often times each teacher has a different assumption guiding their interpretation. To most, the most salient interpretation holds that “grammar” means a rigid set of clear-cut prescriptions on the correct structure of English (whatever that means).

Now the common phrase “teaching grammar” carries all these problems, and more. “Teaching grammar” seems to entail the following:

  1. Students lack “grammar.”
  2. Teacher possess “grammar.”
  3. The act of “teaching grammar” is completed when teachers have deposited “grammar” in the minds of their students.

So when we say we’re “teaching grammar,” it seems to suggest we’re operating in some sort of authoritarian, anti-Freirean regime—contrary to what I think most intend. (Interestingly, if we talk about “teaching writing,” I don’t think it carries a parallel set of entailments.)

I propose replacing “teaching grammar” with the less explosive “sentence-level pedagogies.” Why? Because it more accurately captures the meaning I think most intend when they say “teaching grammar.” As a plural, it entails multiple approaches. It defines the domain it encompasses—everything that goes on inside the sentence—from spelling, to syntax, to mechanical correctness, to style.

The rest is left conspicuously vague. And that’s good! “Sentence-level pedagogies” suggests nothing about what the end goal is. It says nothing about the pedagogical methods used to reach the goals. It says nothing about whether our pedagogy is Freireian or the banking method. It practically forces teachers and scholars to clarify the rest.

To be fair, my proposal here will probably prove futile. For one, “sentence-level pedagogies” sounds clunkier. And If I followed my own advice, I’d have to change the change this blog’s URL. I’d also lose traffic from search engines. When I Google “teaching grammar,” I get over 400,000 results, compared with less than 1,000 for “sentence-level pedagogies” and “sentence-level pedagogy” combined.

But more broadly, communities of language users naturally resist schemes to replace one word with another. For a classic example, consider the countless failed attempts to artificially engineer a gender-free replacement for the expression “he or she.” These sorts of proposals only gain traction amongst the highly educated and self-conscious, and rarely for long.[1][2]

I’ll keep campaigning in favor of “sentence-level pedagogies,” but I’m just one teacher in California. In the meantime, I’d be happy just to see teachers and scholars clarifying exactly what they’re talking about when they’re talking about “teaching grammar.”


[1]  John H. McWhorter. 2001. Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution. In Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 2009. 10th edition. Edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. p. 373 – 379.

[2] The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. p. 172 – 174.

How a Linguist Teaches Writing

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Few teachers of writing hold degrees in Linguistics. It’s rare enough that a master’s degree in Linguistics doesn’t automatically satisfy the state of California’s “minimum qualifications” for someone like me to teach English in a Community College.

A railroad track in New York.

A railroad track, somewhere in rural New York.

I was once asked to explain how my training as a linguist informs how I teach writing. The preparation is excellent. The benefits of the training run deeper than just enabling me to help students learn the conventions of English grammar and mechanics; the training especially informs my pedagogical stance towards students at the first-year composition level and above.

In these course, I’m prepared for a common set of questions from students:

How many sentences does a paragraph need to have?

Can I use the word “I”  in an academic essay?

How do I know if I should quote or paraphrase?

When I began teaching, I would answer these sorts of questions by telling students to do whatever I would do if I were writing the same essay. Over time, I’ve come to read these sorts of questions deeper, to see them as vehicles by which students attempt to surrender authority over their writing in favor of receiving a confident proclamation of what’s “right.”

I try to avoid taking this bait.  Instead, I often find it more productive to respond by asking What have you heard? What do you think? What are the implications of doing it this way? I’m still surprised at how often students are already 90% of the way towards answering their own questions, and usually when I ask a couple careful follow-up questions, students willingly take ownership over their writing project.

This way of responding is grounded in my prior training as a linguist.  When analyzing how language works, the linguist is constantly tempted to posit definitive rules. But it soon becomes apparent that every “rule” of grammar is dogged by its exceptions, and those exceptions carry their own asterisks. In the face of such chaos, there can be no final human authority on how language works, a point I return to over and over in my teaching. All a linguist can do is ask questions and consider hypotheses, which are either refined or disproven through skeptical inquiry.

Along these lines, I aim for my first-year composition students learn to write in ways that acknowledge uncertainty. This goal is achieved well through Patricia Donahue and Mariolina Salvatori’s Difficulty Paper assignment, an assignment which asks students to begin writing about a reading, not by confidently asserting a thesis statement, but by exploring their own a confusion, struggle, or question—pushing students away from imposing canned closure onto complex issues.

A student once told me they found my ping-ponging their questions flustering, because they never knew where I stood. That’s okay with me. I care more about the reasoning skills students acquire, and their ability to reflexively interrogate that reasoning. My questions aim to make students meta-cognitively aware of the choices they make in their composing processes, so their thinking can continue to grow long after they’ve left my class. Ten years down the road, my students probably will have forgotten where I stood on the issue of using “I” in an academic essay. But I hope, if nothing else, that whenever they write, they still hear my voice echoing in their head, questioning every choice.

Of course, some situations demand that teachers assume leadership and take a more directive approach (for instance, developmental and basic skills courses). Though students learn best by exploring problems through their own volition, they cannot learn everything this way. Again, my training as a linguist shapes how I approach this sort of teaching. Linguists are trained to explain patterns of human language through parsimony—by developing the most simple, elegant explanation possible for a given phenomena. The idea is that, all else equal, the simplest explanation usually proves the best (Occam’s Razor). The same often holds true when explaining concepts to students. In the face of complex explanations and lengthy digressions, even the sharpest students glaze over. Faced with the myriad challenges of composing, students can only synthesize so much instruction at once.

Simplification doesn’t mean, however, that I dumb things down. It means I express sophisticated concepts in minimalist language chosen with care, while still acknowledging underlying complexity. Only once I am certain that students grasp my points, which takes time, can I look to introduce further complexities.

Parsimony also means focusing in depth on a small number of concepts, rather than trying to touch on everything (This is especially relevant in an inter-disciplinary subject like composition.). This principle holds for designing a course, crafting a lesson, or working with a particular student over a semester. For instance, I designed a first-year composition course that had students writing Difficulty Papers throughout the term, and incorporating Rogerian arguments into every major essay. Students benefit more when they learn to do one or two things in depth and well, rather than touching on a little bit of everything. They become experts on a subject and they become better positioned to learn with the same level of depth and focus, whatever they go on to next.

It’s a sad fact, but one that all writing teachers better acknowledge, that no one will ever design the writing class that teaches students, in one semester, anything close to all they need to know to write well.

Four Ways Texting Enhances Students’ Literacy, and One Way it Hurts it

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment

In my prior post, I discussed why one study fails to convince that texting is hurting the grammar skills of middle schoolers, and I challenged the apocalyptic prediction that texting will destroy the English language.

In the current post, I take a position that runs even more contrary to conventional wisdom. I’ll point out four ways texting actually enhances students’ literacy, and one way it hurts it.

1. Texting Improves Audience Awareness

Andrea Lunsford conducted research that showed that emerging digital technologies have given college students a better awareness of their audience. Knowing your audience and how to meet their needs is one of the many keys to being a successful writer—whether you’re writing a memo for work or you’re a student trying to figure out what makes an A-paper in the eyes of a particular teacher.

With text messages, the sender is especially aware of the needs of their recipient. If they suspect that the recipient doesn’t know what “lmao” or “yolo” means, then most texters wisely choose something else. In this way, using textisms is no different than a professional choosing whether to use the jargon of their field.

2. Texting Teaches Students Concision

In all genres, writers must balance the need to express themselves economically (with as few words/letters as possible) against the need to express themselves with accuracy. These two constraints usually operate at cross purposes. Genres such as scholarly research writing favor accurate expression over concision, whereas others, such as haiku, place a premium on economy of expression. Since texting also heavily values economy of expression, students who text should be expected to learn the necessity and power of brevity—as Shakespeare put it, “the soul of wit.”

3. Using Textims Improves Phonological Awareness

Some evidence shows, counter-intuitively, that students who regularly use textisms actually learn to spell and read better. A 2009 study by Beverly Plester et. al found that 10 – 12-year old children who had a higher ratio of textisms to total words in their texts tended to do better with word reading, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. Similarly, a 2011 study by Clare Wood et. al found that  students’ use of textisms at the start of the school year was able to predict their spelling performance at the end of the school year.

How can using non-standard spellings help students improve with standard spellings? Self-consciously manipulating standard spellings enhances their phonological awareness—their understandings of the ways in which written letters relate to the sounds of spoken language. Phonological awareness skills help students not just learn to spell with greater accuracy but also to decode unfamiliar words in readings and more fully comprehend.

4. Texting Provides More Reading/Writing Practice

Don’t forget that just a few decades ago, for most people writing was something that happened primarily when a teacher required it. A narrow segment of the population went into white-collar professions that required writing. Those outside of the workforce, or in blue-collar jobs, wrote infrequently, if at all, once they left school. Teachers know how rusty student writers go over a 12-week summer break; imagine the same rust accumulating over the course of one’s adult life.

As Andrea Lunsford puts it, we’ve never had a generation of youth like today’s, where authorship has spread to the masses. Youth today of all walks of life write constantly outside of school—email, social media, texting, etc. Don’t expect them to stop as they age. Even if it’s not formal school writing, such constant practice with writing has real benefits to their overall skills with literacy. Summarizing the research, Beverly Plester et. al note that one factor “reliably associated with reading attainment is exposure to the printed word” (147).

The Real Danger: Texting as a Classroom Distraction

Most teachers have had that student—the one who sits towards the back of the classroom, their eyes focused downward towards the smart-phone buried in their lap. They text away, thinking that teacher doesn’t see the busy thumbs underneath their desk.

Smartphones can introduce a huge distraction into the classroom. When you’re fiddling with your phone, you can’t learn what’s being taught. One Wilkes University study found that 91% of college students admit to texting during class time. In a composition classroom with 20 to 30 students, students have to work harder to hide their texting than in a large lecture hall, but it still happens.

How should college teachers deal with this? It’s tempting to take the tone of the anti-texting fascist on day one, sternly warning students of the consequences of not turning off their electronics before they enter the classroom. And while these rules must be made clear, as the semester progresses, students will test these waters.

I think of cell-phones less as the cause and more as the symptom of a separate problem—students not being engaged by the teaching. In other words, if my students are pulling out their phones, I might need to find a better way to engage them.

The Wilkes University study points out the importance of how the student desks are configured in the classroom, and whether the teacher is focused on the blackboard or on interacting with students. In my experience, this is correct. I disallow students from sitting in the back rows of the classroom, where it’s easy to hide their texting. My students also spend much of their class time engaged in discussions or working in small groups, where it’s harder to text inconspicuously.

Yet I still catch the occasional student texting in class. When I see it, I’ll conspicuously stop what I’m doing and personally ask them if they have a question. I might say they looked a little puzzled. They usually get the message (pun intended).

Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivsm aren’t so Contradictory

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella discusses two general approaches to the grammar of the English language—prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whether or not you’ve heard of these terms before, the distinction matters, since your teaching of grammar is necessarily shaped by one or both. In this post, I’m going to discuss each, show their strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for how I believe teachers can combine the two to get the best of both when they teach issues of grammar.

Prescriptivism aims to dictate how people should be using the language. Put commas here. Don’t put semi-colons there. Say “different than” instead of “different from,” etc. Though “prescriptivism” has acquired something of a dirty name in many circles, the dictates that fall under the category of prescriptivism can range from the sensible and uncontroversial (capitalize people’s names), to the baseless and trivial (don’t end a sentence with a preposition).

Descriptivism attempts to describe how the language is actually used, without necessarily advocating that people have to be doing things in a certain way. Before making any claims, a descriptivist would examine existing writing, corpuses of spontaneous speech, or observations of how people around them use language. From this, they would draw generalization about the structure of the language, the ways things vary from one speaker to the next, and how things change with time, etc.

To make the conversation less abstract, consider how descriptivists and presecriptivists would each deal with an actual issue of English usage. Let’s say that you join together two clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them:

1. I ate the fish tacos but I’m still alive.

The issue here is whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. According to the prescriptivist handbook Rules for Writers, you should put a comma before coordinating conjunctions (and/but/or/etc.) joining two clauses, unless the clauses being joined are “short.”[1] In a 1987 descriptive study, Charles Frederick Meyer analyzed 72,000 words of published writing, concluding that a rule like this prescriptive one is generally accurate, except that writers tended to omit the comma if the conjunction was and, while adding it if the conjunction was but.[2] In this case, the prescriptivist and the descriptivist use different methods to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions. (In reality, I suspect that many other variables influence whether a writer chooses to use a comma in these contexts, but such a discussion is beyond my scope here.)

In their most extreme forms, rigid prescriptivism and rigid descriptivism work poorly in the writing classroom. Extreme prescriptivists are ignorant to the realities of language, or they even betray prejudice against those who speak different dialects and registers. On the other hand, extreme descriptivists, when they teach writing, sometimes open themselves up to the criticism that their “anything goes” attitude conveys a lack of standards for their students that may even disempower linguistic minorities who wish to acquire the language of power. Both of these extremes, however, represent straw men; every experienced writing teacher I’ve known takes a more moderate position.

Although descriptivism dominates the field of Linguistics, writing teachers are oriented somewhat more towards prescriptivism. This shouldn’t surprise. After all, writing teachers aim to get students to write in a certain way (rather than to have students comprehend all the complexities of grammar). Our prescriptivism manifests itself when we correct students’ grammar in their essays, we refer them to handbooks that tell them how to punctuate, and we give them workbook exercises where the answer key gives one correct answer.

When we’re too heavily oriented towards a prescriptive approach to usage, it blinds us to appreciating the true reality of our language and how people actually resolve vexing issues of usage. For instance, consider the issue of how to express the third person, singular, epicene (neither male nor female) pronoun. What word goes in the blank here:

2. Someone left a car with its lights on in the parking lot, and ___ also forgot to close the windows.

In addition to s/he, he or she, prescriptivists have suggested over eighty possibilities, including himorher, hann, and ze, almost all of which are awkward and never catch on.[3] (Historically speaking, few prescriptive innovations, in fact, ever catch on widely beyond a small segment of educated, self-conscious writers.) Meanwhile, John H. McWhorter, a descriptivist, points out that the pronoun they has long been used as a singular, third person epicene.[4] But a descriptivist who points this out begins to sound like they’re making a prescription!

To Acocella, descriptivism and prescriptivism are at odds with one another—one’s stance is either prescriptivist or descriptivist. At the end of her article, she claims that if you espouse both, you’re contradicting yourself. Here Acocella operates within a false dichotomy that shows an incomplete understanding. The two approaches operate at cross purposes. Descriptivism is essentially a stance that’s geared towards inquiry, one that rightly sees human language as a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be studied and understood without drawing value judgments, much as a Biologist would study the structure of a cell. With prescriptivism, the goal is more oriented towards practical ends, to influence how others use language, often in certain formal contexts such as public speaking or academic writing, or even to alter the future development of the language.

Acocella overlooks how perscriptivism and descriptivism each tend to focus on separate issues within the language. Prescriptivists focus on those areas of the language where certain usages cause controversy or where novice writers tend to make mistakes. Descriptivists often see such issues as relatively minor, and take a broader focus. In fact, many of the generalizations captured by descriptivists are transparent to prescriptivists. What prescriptivist would bother with injunctions to put the article before its noun or the subject before its verb? It’s so uncontroversially part of English syntax that it hardly seems worth prescriptivists’ time, whereas a descriptivist would point out that other languages allow other word orders.

In practice, the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism grows fuzzy, since each approach readily co-opts the other. The prescriptive approach constantly masquerades in the guise of descriptivism. This is the common orientation of many handbooks. When they make sweeping generalizations about how to use grammar and how to punctuate, they imply that this is just how everyone does it, and you should too. But a closer reading reveals that these examples are rarely backed up by solid evidence—just an authoritative, imperative tone, the weight of prescriptive tradition, and a few example sentences manufactured to back up their particular claim. Conversely, Acocella points out that being a descriptivist can be a form of prescribing what people should do, in the sense that descriptivists tend to be laissez-faire about many issues of usage. The descriptivist prescribes that each person should do what’s natural to them.

When we teach, our teaching must be informed by both approaches to language. We must be prescriptivists, because that is what writing teachers are expected to do—we prepare students to write effectively in certain types of formal situations. Students would grow annoyed if we refused to advise them on how to deal with the conventions of usage and mechanics. At the same time, our prescriptions need to be better informed by accurate descriptions of the English language, and by what is pedagogically appropriate. This is not to say that our prescriptions should match perfectly with descriptive grammars, but only that we need to think carefully the relationship between the two.

When balancing prescriptivism and descriptivism, we must make a constant trade off between being empirically accurate and comprehensive on one hand, and being clear, simple, and brief with our students on the other. It’s impossible to do everything. The advantage to prescriptitivism is that it simplifies the boundless complexities of language and elides the murky areas of ambiguity. This makes it easier to teach, easier for students to digest, and easier for teachers to evaluate. The disadvantage is that prescriptive approaches sometimes line up poorly with English as it is actually used by respected writers. This is one of many reasons that grammar instruction confuses students. Their teacher tells them to do it one way, and they see the authors of assigned readings doing something else entirely. What message does this send to students?

A thoughtful writing teacher comes up with a prescription for their students that approximates the descriptive reality and that helps them express themselves effectively. It won’t be perfect, it won’t cover every exception and irregularity, but it will get students close enough. Students demand authoritative responses to their uncertainties, but thoughtful teachers can acknowledge that they don’t know everything about grammar. When students go on to their next class, they can work through the remaining complexities on their own.


[1] p. 292 – 293

[2] This study is described on p.154 – 155 of Revising the Rules by Brock Haussamen.

[4] “Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution”. p. 373 – 380 in Language Awareness.

Coaching the Perfect Jump-Shot, Teaching the Perfect Sentence

Recently, I went to the gym with a friend to shoot hoops. After he crushed me 21-to-0 in a game of one-on-one, we decided to shoot around for fun. He observed my form, and he offered to coach me to improve my jump-shot

“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders over toes.”

I looked down. Good. I shot. Clank, off the rim.

“You’re twisting your upper body to the left as you shoot. You’re jerking your head away from the ball. Keep it straight.”

I tried again. Clank. He shot me a disapproving look.

I realized then how much shooting a jump shot shares in common with writing an effective sentence: when things go well, many, many things need to synch up seamlessly, and we often don’t even notice. With a sentence, you need to execute skills of organization, reasoning, transitioning, parallelism, agreement, word choice, word endings, punctuation, etc. With a jump shot, each part of the body needs to be moving fluidly in synch. Your knees bend and spring. Your core explodes upwards. Your eyes focus on the basket. The shooting forearm swings forward. The wrist flicks with just the right amount of force to put slight backspin on the ball. Each motion contains infinite subtleties. Being slightly off with one can turn the shot into a brick, just as a brief lapse into clunky grammar can derail an otherwise excellent sentence.

“You need to be jumping straight up and down as you shoot.”

I shot again. As I landed, I noticed my body drifting to the left. Clank.

“Okay. Imagine drawing a line from the tip of each big toe to the top of your sternum. It forms a triangle. Now chop the triangle in half. It forms a line, running through the floor up through the center of your body. As you shoot, your body should move up and down along this line.”

I tried to visualize it, but I got lost trying to follow the imaginary geometry bisecting my body. I shot again. Clank.

“When you start, do you see how you’re holding the ball off to the right? Hold the ball directly over your head as you shoot. You’re holding it too far off to the right.”

“But I can’t get it there,” I protested. “My shoulder isn’t flexible enough.”

I shot again. Clank.

“You need your shooting arm to move in an axis straight towards the basket. It can’t be drifting to one side.”

I shot again. If I made it, maybe he’d back off. Clank.

“Try doing it again, but when you jump, try to land in the same place where you start.”

I shot again. In-and-out.

“Try to do a jump shot, but don’t jump. Just spring from your knees and hips, up and down, but keep your feet planted.”

I shot again. Airball.

As I was trying to process all the guidance, I grew more and more overwhelmed. The more I tried to focus on the technical details and the imaginary lines, the more I tensed up, the more my focus wandered, and the worse my shot became.

And then I wondered: is this how lots of students feel in the face of well-meaning but overly complex grammar instruction?

Just as grammar instruction posits all sorts of abstract structures that lace together the words we can actually see, my friend’s guidance depended on all this invisible geometry that underlies the mechanics of my jumpshot. To an expert who learned it an early age, the invisible stuff seems obvious and fundamental—and so necessary to improvement. But experts often forget how difficult it can be for the novice to visualize the invisible, let alone utilize it to improve their skills.

Teachers must acknowledge the limits to how much instruction any of us can process at once, especially when we ask students to grapple with the abstractions of grammar. After all, no matter how concrete they seem in handbooks, the phrases, and the clauses that comprise our sentences and the parts of speech are all abstractions, and most students will look at a sentence and only see the bare words themselves. It is difficult to move beginning students beyond this level of analysis. This is not to say that we cannot explicitly teach students how to analyze grammatical structures or improve their writing at the sentence level; it means that we face serious limits to how much we can hope to do. In our instruction, we need to be careful not to overwhelm students with more information than they can digest at one time, or more than what they can actually incorporate into their own writing.

We also need to acknowledge that students improve slowly. No basketball player goes from a bench-warmer to Jordanesque in three months. Nor can we expect a clunky writer to guild New Yorker caliber sentences in the course of a semester.

At the same time, huge chunks of the skills that go into crafting effective sentences (or executing a perfect jumpshot) cannot be explicitly taught. It’s infeasible. There’s not enough time in a semester. Effective coaches and teachers are targeted in their instruction. They break it into small pieces that are easy to digest. With writing, students require exposure to good examples and plenty of time for imitation and trial and error. The same goes for basketball. You can learn so much just by spending an hour in an empty gym goofing around with your form or scrimmaging with good players and copying their moves.

What Back Pain and Grammatical Errors Share in Common

When you complain to your doctor of back pain, your doctor has the option of approaching the problem from many angles. They could approach it as a structural problem, in which case they order an MRI or physical therapy. They could approach it as a manifestation of a high-stress lifestyle: exercise more and work less. Is it as an issue of tissue inflammation? Take some ibuprofen and apply heat/ice.

When teachers find a grammatical error in student writing, the stakes are lower and the relationship less clinical, but we face a similar sort of decision. How we categorize the errors in student essays is neither trivial nor straightforward. It caries important implications for how we understand it and how a student addresses it.

To see this, try a simple experiment—read the following sentence, which closely resembles a sentence in a student essay I recently read, and then say what type of error it contains:

1. I don’t have much time to surf the internet like my little cousin, who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day, I have work and school to take care of.

Most people will classify this error as a comma splice between “day” and “I.” This is how I was inclined to mark it. But marking it as a comma splice is mainly the result of tradition.

If we leave traditional typologies of error aside, the error could have been labeled as:

  • A failure to insert a conjunction. Perhaps the student wanted to join multiple clauses together, but didn’t know how. This categorization would make sense in the context of a Christensen-inspired sentence-combining pedagogy.
  • An error with the punctuation of a non-restrictive clause. The phrase “who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day” is used non-restrictively, and students are often instructed to set these off with commas. Perhaps the student over-generalized that principle.
  • An error due to an oral-sounding sentence. When students’ speech influences their writing, they might sprinkle in commas where they “sound” right or mix up one type of punctuation with another (commas and periods). After all, in speech, commas and periods sound the same—like silence.

In another view, the error in #1 exists in our imagination only. Edgar Shuster notes that what are traditionally categorized as comma-splice errors do appear intentionally in professional writing.[1] Anecdotally, I have seen an increased incidence of comma-splices in the edited writing of the English teachers that I work with. Punctuation standards change. Twenty years from now, who knows if teachers will judge sentences like #1 as error-free?

There’s no “right” answer on how to categorize this error. Just as back pain is influenced by many factors and can be addressed in many ways, the same holds with student errors. With English grammar and the human spine, many complicated subsystems interact, and a student error often results when several things go wrong at once. Before a doctor chooses how to approach the problem, they need to learn more about the whole person. Likewise, the instructor needs to know something about the student’s background and the pattern of errors in the rest of the essay.

Many grammar errors might better be understood as the surface manifestations of “deeper” problems students are facing. Just as the back and neck muscles tense up painfully under psychological stress, a student who otherwise writes error-free prose slips into clumsy, ungrammatical sentences when they push beyond their zones of comfort, think through complex issues, or try to sound “academic” to their teacher—a point which has been made by Mike Rose[2], David Bartholomae[3] and Ian Barnard[4]. Students’ language processing centers overload when they try—all at once—to think through complex ideas, weave together elaborate syntaxes, and deal with all the other demands of writing and being human.

How you categorize an error strongly suggests to the student how to address it. Labelling the error in #1 a comma-splice suggests the student should change the comma to a period. Labelling it an error with a missing conjunction suggests the student should review the ways to combine sentences. And labeling it a speech-based error suggest that the student needs to more generally become more attuned to the differences between written academic English and the version English they speak at home and with friends.

Finally, let’s consider three less-directive alternatives to the categorizations of the error discussed above:

  • Maybe we don’t even need to bother with categorizing the error. Maybe the student already knows how to fix it. Sometimes students just need to be reminded to proofread.
  • It could be categorized simply as an “error,” with no finer-grained distinctions made. Smart teachers know when it’s futile to try to understand what was going on inside a student’s head. In this case, the student is left to figure out how to fix it. This implies a non-directive pedagogy where students take the initiative in improving their writing.
  • Or the teacher could have ignored the error and said nothing, which suggests to student that in the universe of issues to address in their essay, this one ranks low.

Doctors often respond this way to short-term back pain, essentially brushing it off. Like many student errors, it often disappears on its own with little to no intervention. Patients’ health faces a bigger threat from unintended consequences when the doctor over-treats the initial problem. And I’d argue that a parallel principle holds when teachers have to decide how to respond to a wide swath grammatical errors.