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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.

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Review of Joseph M. Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error”

I recommend that you read Joseph M. Williams’s The Phenomenology of Error as a companion piece to Patrick Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. Both readings form the foundation for thoughtful discussions into the specifics of sentence-level pedagogies. Just as Hartwell questions what “grammar” means, Williams questions what linguistic “error” means, and what epistemologies and methodologies underlie labeling an expression an error. Williams and Hartwell help us see that “error” and “grammar” are often used in a sloppy, untheorized way, which forces us to lump disparate items into the same broad category.

Joseph M. Williams, author of The Phenomenology of Error.

Williams begins by comparing linguistic errors with social errors. This comparison lets us view error not in the usual product-centric perspective, where error exists on the page of a text, but in a transactional perspective, where error is socially situated within a flawed transaction between writer and reader. At the same time, Williams points out a hole in the analogy between social error and linguistic error: social errors can cause big problems; linguistic errors largely cluster into the domain of the trivial.

Williams views the common methodologies of defining error (and the rules that demarcate error) with skepticism, for several reasons:

1. One common methodology has researchers survey people about whether a given expression contains an error. Such surveys, Williams believes, are flawed. The question itself is leading. It entices us to read more self-consciously, and self-conscious readers over-report perceived errors.

2. We report our own linguistic habits inaccurately. How we profess to use the language differs from how we actually do. As evidence, Williams cites several prominent handbook authors whose attested usage contradicts their own prescriptions for usage (sometimes in the same sentence!).

3. In determining error, we tend to appeal too trustingly to the authority of a handbook or a teacher.

4. Regardless of our methodology, no one can ever agree on what things constitute grammatical errors.

How do we address these issues? Williams begins by contrasting two ways of reading: how we read when we hunt for errors (the way many teachers read student essays), versus how we read when we read for content (the way we read experts’ writing). Williams believes that if we read the second way, we can develop a formal classification of at least four types of rules:

1. Those we notice if followed and if violated.

2. Those we notice if followed but not if violated.

3. Those we don’t notice if followed but do if violated.

4.  Those we never notice, regardless of whether followed or violated.

This last sort strikes me as an interesting category—vacuous errors printed in some handbooks but with no psycholinguistic reality. Each person might categorize any given rule into different categories. That’s expected. Crucially, when we read for content, not every rule (or “rule”) will enter into our consciousness.

Williams’s categorization of rules could be further elaborated in the way suggested by Hartwell’s five definitions of “grammar.” For any rule posited, what forces are said to motivate it?

• Does the rule differentiate “standard” written English from less prestigious dialects?
• Does it help to enhance rhetorical style?
• Is it a core part of the grammar of all dialects?
• Does it distinguish native speakers from ESL learners?
• Is it some grammarian’s pet-peeve?

Williams prescribes a big change for teachers and language researchers. Regardless of what “experts” posit as error, teachers and researchers should focus their attention on the sorts of errors that rudely interpose themselves when we read for content, rather than defining error by appealing to outside authority. (At the end of the essay, Williams makes the much celebrated revelation that his own essay embodies this principle: he has inserted numerous errors into the article, errors which most readers will—on their first read—overlook.)

At the end, Williams concedes that his proposal might prove futile. Why? We get more satisfaction from hunting for errors and chastising supposed linguistic transgressors. Grammar Nazism and the “gotcha!” approach to language satisfy us more than merely noting what jumps out to us on a non-self-conscious reading.

Three decades after this article was first published, Williams’s proposal has carried more influence than he could have predicted. For one, linguists and psycholinguists have developed even more sophisticated methodologies for carefully assessing various shades of grammaticality. Linguists search corpuses of actual speech and writing to see what usages are attested (Google enables anyone with an internet connection to do a crude version of this sort of research). Psycholinguists rely on furtive research techniques to gauge grammaticality, such as cameras that track reader’s eye movements, reaction-time tasks, and even brain imaging.

At the same time, the grammar Nazism of prior generations has faded somewhat from the collective consciousness. Consider three pieces of evidence:

1. The specific prescriptive rules that Williams discusses throughout his essay seem dated. In fact, when I recently assigned this essay to my advanced composition students, they were confused because they knew nothing about these rules.

2. Two of the most influential language commentators in the popular media—Geoffrey Nunberg and Grammar Girl—base their analysis and usage advice not on cocksure pronouncements of correctness or dogmatic appeals to authority, but on careful historical research and corpus research that takes into account an impressive range of linguistic subtleties.

3. If they’ve been trained in the past three decades, every writing teacher I’ve met tends to take a non-dogmatic approach to sentence-level rules and error.

But one force will always be working against Williams’s proposal: native-speakers’ over-confidence in what they know about their language. As native speakers, we are swimming in the English language. And we’ve been using it since we were toddling. So any native speaker can easily authorize themselves to wear the hat of the grammar Nazi, and inveigh against whatever “error” so happens to bug them.

Although I embrace Williams’s rejection of the handbook’s authority when it comes to my own writing, my principal critique of Williams’s article stems from this fact: Williams taught at The University of Chicago. His classrooms were composed of the country’s elite students. The sentence-level needs of his students share little in common with those of the under-prepared students that most of us teach. I’m guessing that Williams’s students wrote relatively clean, sophisticated sentences and found it easy to navigate the subtleties and ambiguities of English usage.

Under-prepared students don’t cope as well with these complexities. A legitimate argument can be be made that they benefit from the authoritarian clarity and structure of the rigid prescriptive rules that characterize handbooks. In this view, handbook rules function as a necessary evil that serves a purpose at a certain stage in writers’ development, like the five-paragraph essay. Williams probably lacked the perspective to appreciate this.

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.

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.

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 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.