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Minimizing Grammar Jargon in the Classroom

First, let’s start with what not to do—don’t overwhelm writing students with jargon. Many students instantly tense up when they hear all sorts of grammatical terminology. Especially if their prior preparation is less than ideal, jargon can be intimidating and confusing. Not knowing the inside jargon reinforces nontraditional students’ feeling of being outsiders in academia. At the same time, much of the traditional terminology is unneeded when it comes to the practicalities of teaching writing.

Jargon cannot be avoided completely in the teaching of grammar and mechanics, and it carries some utility. The benefit to jargon is that once students understand the concept it names and the classroom shares a common vocabulary, the jargon helps teachers be precise and save time. You’ll probably need to use some, so when you choose to introduce jargon, consider the purposes for doing so, and avoid the grammatical jargon if possible. As a rule, I try to only introduce grammar jargon if I know that I’m going to refer to the concept at some point in the future. When you do introduce grammar jargon, ensure that students understand the concept to which it refers. Formal definitions can help, but most students will learn it better if you also illustrate the concept by through an example sentence.

Even if students have been taught grammatical terminology in prior classes, you cannot assume that they share a common vocabulary. With many concepts, there is no widely agreed upon name. Different textbooks/teachers use terms inconsistently, and there are many instances where different terms to refer to the same concept. Consider a simple example:

1. Going to the park, I saw the person I was trying to avoid.

Some textbooks refer to the underlined phrase as a present participial phrase, while others call it a verbal or a verbal phrase.  Since no one polices the conventions of grammar jargon, textbooks/teachers are never going to all agree on a common lexicon.

Consider now the issue that teachers have to face when it comes to teaching students the conventions of using commas inside sentences. There are many phrases that are often delimited on each side by commas. Here are some examples

2. After eating, the dogs came in.
3. It was a good idea, after a long day at the office and running around to pick up the kids, to unwind on the couch and have an enjoyable snack.
4. John, in fact, did much better than he expected on the exam.

Strictly speaking, the commas are optional to delimit the phrase, but the commas become more necessary when the phrase is longer or when they help the reader to avoid misparsing the sentence.[1] These phrases have variously been referred to as transitional expressions, parenthetical expressions, introductory expressions, asides, interruptions. Whatever they are called, they pattern similarly in terms of comma usage. Given the over-riding similiarities, why burden the classroom with a whole spate of jargon to describe them. All else being equal, students gain little from knowing all these different terms. If all these phrases function the same way, why not just pick one thing to call them. In my class, I call them interruptions or—when they are at the start of a sentence—introductory words.

The jargon you use should have intuitive names. Don’t feel bound to the traditional terminology. Some common examples of grammar jargon have misleading names, and should thus be avoided. Let’s consider the term “run-on sentence,” an error which occurs when two sentences are right next to one another, and there is no connective word or ending punctuation between the two. I find that students readily misinterpret the term “run-on” to mean that the sentence goes on for too long. But there’s nothing wrong per se with a long sentence; in fact, many of us aim for students to write long, elegant sentences. Instead, the issue that there’s a missing connective or ending punctuation. A more intuitive way to talk about this issue would be to eschew the term “run-on” and instead say that two sentences run-together. Once students get this concept, then you can name it as a “run-together sentence.”—a term that’s more intuitive.

Avoid jargon if a more common lay-term would work just as well. A common example of unneeded jargon is the term “suffix.” Many basic and developmental writing students may not know this term, so using it would introduce an added layer of confusion and might take up additional class time. Instead, why not use the synonymous lay-term “word ending”, which works just as well. I’ve found that in many situations, you can refer to many different categories of errors—such as missing/incorrect suffixes, subject-verb agreement, possessive usage—all under the category of errors with word endings. Word ending errors are especially common when students’ written literacy is strongly influenced by their oral literacy, given that in general, the endings off words are not as clearly pronounced in speech (even with native speakers) as the rest of the word. Much of the time, if you tell a student that there’s an error with the word ending, they will be able to correct it on their own, and you don’t have to burden them with any more jargon.


[1] Huddleston & Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. P. 1746.