As tutors, you will be facing this problem with nearly every writer that you see. How can you explain a grammar rule so that the writer will understand it, remember it, and employ it correctly the next time he writes a paper? We can offer no solution to this problem that will work 100% of the time. What we can offer is a way of looking at grammar that will help you to make it more relevant to the writing and thinking processes.

Grammar and the Facilitative Approach

The facilitative approach to teaching writing may not at first seem conducive to the teaching of grammar. After all, when a tutor sees blatant and consistent errors in a text, what is she supposed to do? Ask questions about the error, or give good, solid directions as to how to fix the error? The answer is not as simple as you might think.

Simply "fixing" error in a writer's text doesn't do the writer any good. The tutor, after all, is applying her own knowledge rather than instructing the writer. To make the matter more troublesome, instruction in grammar, for some reason that has evaded English teachers, doesn't seem to "stick" with students. Remember how many times you were taught the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, and their accompanying punctuation rules? Can you tell me the rule now?

As tutors, you will be facing this problem with nearly every writer that you see. How can you explain a grammar rule so that the writer will understand it, remember it, and employ it correctly the next time he writes a paper?

We can offer no solution to this problem that will work 100% of the time. What we can offer is a way of looking at grammar that will help you to make it more relevant to the writing and thinking processes.

First of all, it is easier to see why grammar is important when you understand the idea that, in written expression, form and content are not two separate entities. When you alter the form of expression, you alter (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically) its content. Similarly, an error in form might reveal that there is something wrong with the content. Consider, for example, a vague antecedent reference: the sentence contains two or three "its", but it isn't clear to what, exactly, these "its" refer. Perhaps this is an error of form only: the writer was careless, and didn't bother to fill in the blank for the reader. But perhaps the problem is deeper than this: perhaps the writer is not sure herself what "it" is. And perhaps this is the problem with the entire paper.

By understanding that problems with grammar may reveal problems with thinking and content, the tutor can approach grammar in a way that is more meaningful to the writer, and to that particular paper. In other words, you can discuss antecedent references with writers until their eyes glaze over and their stomachs rumble, and still have very little success. However, if you can tie a grammar error to a more general tendency in the student's writing or thinking habits, then he will be more apt to understand the error, and to avoid it next time he writes.

Remember: grammatical errors are often connected to errors in thinking. When you read an essay, keep one eye on error - not simply noting it, but looking for categories of error. Are there several antecedent problems? Fragment problems? And so on. And do these categories fit into some larger category of error? For example, if antecedent references are unclear, and most of the fragments don't have subjects, then you might guess that the writer is having trouble naming her topic. You're then on alert: do these errors suggest that the writer does not yet have a clear idea about what she is trying to say? Addressing error in terms of the more critical thinking problems may prove effective in teaching both grammar and the process of writing to students who have serious writing problems.

Marking Grammatical Errors

Tutors have an easier job with grammatical error than do writing assistants. After all, the writer is sitting beside you when you tutor, and you can engage him in a discussion about his errors, determine what he knows and doesn't know, illustrate right from wrong, and be on your way.

But when you are a writing assistant, the writer isn't sitting next to you. You must therefore respond to the errors in the paper by marking them in some way. However, what is the best way to mark error in a paper? Your impulse will often be simply to correct errors as you see them. But, as we stated earlier, fixing errors is a form of copyediting, not a form of teaching. Certainly writers will be grateful to you if you correct their papers, but they will not have learned anything about grammar in the process.

So, how should you respond to grammatical errors? You have a number of choices. You might:

  • Label all errors using specific grammatical terms (agreement problem, comma splice, etc.)
  • Circle all errors (with the aim of bringing writers to labeling errors on their own)
  • Correct or rewrite a phrase or sentence (with the aim of modeling a correct and/or eloquent style)
  • Label an error the first or second time that it occurs, and then instruct the writer to find subsequent errors of that kind in their papers
  • Look for patterns of error, and note the two or three most common patterns in the summary comments (a method that works well for ESL or other writers who are making many different kinds of grammatical errors in their papers).

Which method works best? Well, different methods work best in different situations. For example, labeling errors helps to initiate writers into the vocabulary of grammar. Circling errors encourages writers to puzzle out what mistake they made. Noting an error the first or second time it occurs and then instructing writers to find subsequent examples encourages them to be closer, better readers of their own texts. Isolating patterns of errors helps ESL and other writers to understand the general principles of our language. Consider which method works best for a given situation, and respond accordingly.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

When you do find yourself called upon to discuss the rules of grammar, don't panic. Grammar is not as tough as you think, and what you don't know you can easily find in any of the grammar handbooks on the shelves in RWIT. What you should know about grammar is that there are two ways of looking at it: prescriptively (which means that grammar rules ought to prescribe our usage) and descriptively (which means that grammar "rules" aren't rules at all, but instead are descriptions of the way we use our language).

The Writing Support Programs ascribe to the descriptive notion of grammar. We therefore do not see grammar as a fixed or sacred body of knowledge, but as something that changes over time. Therefore, many of the "rules" of grammar (such as "Don't split infinitives!" or "Don't end sentences with a preposition!") are, in our estimation, rules to gladly part with. (As is evidenced by the split infinitive and the preposition that ends the previous sentence.)

Still, there are rules that cannot be broken, and rules that should not be broken. How is the writing tutor to determine one batch from the other?

In fact, there are four kinds of grammar rules: rules etched in stone; rules that are breakable; rules that, in this day and age, can be considered optional; and the bete noires that traditionalists still bicker about. What follows (from Joseph M. Williams' book, Style) are examples from each category of grammar rules.

Rules Etched in Stone

  • Do not use double negatives. (He had hardly no education.)
  • Do not use non-standard verbs. (They knowed he was sick.)
  • Do not use double comparatives. (This dress is more prettier.)
  • Do not use some adjectives for adverbs. (The food was real good.)
  • Do not use incorrect pronouns. (Her and me are best friends.)
  • Do not make subject-verb disagreements. (We was dating for a year.)

Breakable Rules

  • Never begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Use that--not which--for restrictive clauses; which for non-restrictive clauses.
  • Use fewer with nouns you can count, less with quantities you cannot.

Optional Rules

  • Do not split infinitives.
  • Use shall as the first person simple future, will for second and third person simple future; use will to mean strong intention in the first person, shall for second and third person.
  • Use whom as the object of a verb or preposition.
  • Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Do not refer to one with he or his, repeat one.
  • Contrary-to-fact statements require the subjunctive form of the verb.

Some Bête Noires

These rules are the ones that will get you in trouble with the grammar police; you may consider them silly, but you should be careful!

  • Never use like for as or as if.
  • After different use from, never to or than.
  • Use hopefully only when the subject of the sentence is in fact hopeful.
  • Never use finalize to mean finish, complete, end.
  • Never use irregardless for regardless.
  • Do not modify an absolute word such as perfect, unique, final, or complete, with very, more, quite, and so on.

Most Common Errors

You'll find it helpful to know that writers tend to make the same twenty grammatical mistakes over and over again. This isn't just our impression; it's a statement in fact supported by a study done by Andrea Lunsford and Robert Conner. Their study shows that twenty different grammatical mistakes comprise 91.5 percent of all errors in student writing. If you, as a tutor or writing assistant, can help writers to control these common errors, you will have alleviated most of the grammatical problems that plague student writing.

These most common errors are (in order of frequency in which they occur):

  1. No comma after introductory phrases
  2. Vague pronoun references
  3. No comma in compound sentence
  4. Wrong word
  5. No comma around non-restrictive clauses
  6. Wrong/missing inflected endings
  7. Wrong/missing preposition
  8. Comma Splices
  9. Possessive apostrophe error
  10. Tense shift
  11. Unnecessary shift in person
  12. Sentence fragment
  13. Wrong tense or verb form
  14. Subject-verb agreement
  15. Lack of comma in a series
  16. Pronoun agreement error
  17. Unnecessary commas with restrictive clauses
  18. Run on, fused sentence
  19. Dangling, misplaced modifier
  20. Its/it's error

If you'd like a complete definition of any of these errors, please check the grammar page on our student site.

What follows is not a comprehensive overview of grammatical terms. Rather, it is a list of the terms that we think you must know if you are going to help students with their writing.

The Basic Units of a Sentence

Phrase: A group of words which lacks either a subject or a predicate, or both. For example: "And for years tried to change me." (no subject) Or: "Moonlight in my dorm room." (no predicate) Or: "While at school." (no subject or predicate).

Clause: A group of words that has a subject and predicate. A clause can be dependent or independent. For examples, see below.

Dependent Clause: A group of words which contains a subject and a verb but which cannot stand alone. For example: "Although I am very homesick."

Independent Clause: A group of words which contains a subject and a verb and which can stand alone. For example: "I am going home next weekend."

Types of Sentences

Simple Sentence: An independent clause.

Compound Sentence: Two or more independent clauses which are joined together by means of a coordinate conjunction (such as "and," "but," "or," "for," "yet") or a semi-colon. For example: "I am going home next weekend, but this weekend I have to work." (Or: "I am going home next weekend; this weekend I have to work.")

Complex Sentence: At least one dependent clause combined with at least one independent clause by some means of subordination. For example: "Although I am very homesick, I will not be going home this weekend."

Ways of Combining Sentences

Coordination: The method of joining together two independent clauses by employing either a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon. One employs coordination when both ideas in the sentence are perceived as being of equal importance. For example: "I am very homesick; I want to go home."

Subordination: The method of joining at least one dependent clause to an independent clause. One employs subordination when one wants to show that the information in one part of a sentence is less significant than the information in another part. For example: "Because I have to work, I can't go home this weekend." (The fact of not going home is perceived as more important than the fact of having to work). The different methods of subordination follow:

The Adverb Clause

Adverb clauses indicate time, place, cause or reason, purpose or result, and condition. For example:

  • Time: "John repaired the flat tire while I made sandwiches." (Rather than "John repaired the flat tire, and I made sandwiches.")
  • Place: "They planted a cypress tree where the poplar had been growing." (Rather than "They planted a cypress tree there. A poplar had been growing there.")
  • Cause or Reason: "Because it is late, I have to leave." (Rather than "It is late, and I have to leave.")
  • Purpose or Result: "We went downtown so that we could do some shopping." (Rather than "We went downtown and did some shopping.")
  • Condition: "Although she watered the lawn everyday, the grass turned brown." (Rather than "She watered the grass everyday, and it turned brown.")

(Note that when punctuating the above sentences, we use commas when the subordinate clause precedes the main clause, but not when it follows the main clause.)

The Adjective Clause

The adjective clause makes use of the relative pronouns that, which, who, and whom. For example: the compound sentence "Carole is the woman I married, and she is the most beautiful woman in the world," becomes "Carole, whom I married, is the most beautiful woman in the world."

The Prepositional Phrase

You can subordinate an independent clause by turning it into a prepositional phrase. For example: "The car had red wheels, and it won the race," becomes "The car with red wheels won the race."

The Participial Phrase

You can subordinate an independent clause by using a participial phrase. For example: "The guards were fully armed, and they were expecting trouble," becomes "Expecting trouble, the guards were fully armed."

The Appositive

You can subordinate an independent clause by turning it into an appositive. For example: "Tom is the manager of the store, and he is a city councilman," becomes, "Tom, the manager of the store, is a city councilman."

Grammar Problems

Fragment: A phrase or dependent clause that is offered to the reader as if it were a complete sentence. For example: "While I was lonely." Or: " "Which is the only thing I could do." And so on.

The solution: Attach the fragment to another sentence, or transform it into an independent clause. For example: "While I was lonely, I thought of you." Or: "Writing you a letter was the only thing I could do."

Run-on: A sentence in which too many dependent and/or independent clauses are joined together. For example: "While I was lonely, I thought of you and because writing you a letter was the only thing I could do I got out a pen and I found some paper and I started this epistle to you while you sleep." The solution: Edit the sentence into several shorter sentences.

Agreement Issues: A verb must agree in number with its noun, and a pronoun must agree with its antecedent. If they don't agree, then the sentence's clarity is destroyed. For example: "The repetition of the drum beats help to stir emotions." (The subject is repetition; the verb should be "helps," not "help.") And: "Each of the students had their papers evaluated by a tutor." ("Each" is singular. The pronoun should be "his" or "her.") For more about these agreement issues, check a handbook.

The Passive Voice: Generally, the active voice is seen as preferable to the passive voice. For example: "Little attention was paid to the dying man," is seen as less emphatic than, "The passers-by paid little attention to the dying man." However, when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor, the passive voice is preferable. For example: "Millions of Jews were exterminated in the holocaust" emphasizes the Jews who died, while "The Germans killed millions of Jews" emphasizes the Nazis and their crimes. The sentence you write will depend on which effect you are trying to achieve.

Modifiers, Misplaced and Dangling: Nothing can make a sentence more ridiculous than a misplaced or dangling modifier. Consider the following examples:

  • The professor wrote a paper on murder in his basement study.
  • We served ice-cream to our guests in paper plates.
  • Being tired, the trip came to an end.

The solution: Place the modifier next to what it modifies. For example: "In his study, the professor wrote a paper on murder." And so on.

Faulty Parallelism: Parallel ideas call for parallel structures. Parallel structures are particularly important in lists, in compound structures, in comparisons, and in contrasted elements. For example: "I like to swim, to eat, reading, and sleeping," is an example of faulty parallelism in a list. The writer should either employ the infinitive form of the verb orthe gerund, not both. Another example: "I told my mother that I loved her and I needed money". Rewrite: "I told my mother that I loved her and that I needed money." Yet another example: "We are shaped by heredity and the environment in which we grow up." Rewrite: "We are shaped by heredity and environment." Making writers aware of parallel structures - and getting them to use them in their essays - vastly improves the power and grace of their sentences.

Punctuation: I have neither the time nor the space to provide a comprehensive review of punctuation rules here. However, because punctuation is one of the most prevalent problems in student essays, you will want to be sure that you understand punctuation rules. You may have an "instinctive" grasp of where to put commas; however, it is very difficult to teach instinct to a writer who is entirely baffled by the rules of punctuation. You should learn the rules for yourself. That way, you can avoid embarrassment when writers ask you why a comma goes here, a semi-colon goes there, and so on.