Last Updated June 23,1999

The Problem of Grammatical Errors

      Too many teachers waste way too much time teaching grammar in order to "help students avoid errors." It simply does not work. Unfortunately, many teachers, who realize that it does not work, continue to do so because they don't know what else to do. (Now, of course, they will have the KISS Approach.) Those teachers  who think that it does work have never been able to prove so. If they had been able to prove it, NCTE would not have passed a resolution against the teaching of grammar. Indeed these teachers may be doing more harm than good. They may, for example, focus on comma-splices and then note fewer such splices appearing in students' writing. That effect, however, is more likely the result of the well-known phenomenon of the students writing shorter, safer sentences. The best way to deal with errors is not to deal with them formally at all. Part of the problem is that almost no distinction has been made of the three types of errors --usage, syntax, and pronoun reference; the second part of the problem is that syntactic errors should probably be welcomed instead of being squashed. Usage can be considered the clothing of language -- it may or may not be appropriate for the occasion; syntax is language's skeleton -- without it, language is meaningless.
     When I say that errors should not be dealt with "formally," I mean that specific errors should, with one exception, NEVER be the focus of class discussion. There is no reason to do so, and there is a strong possibility that giving students examples of errors, orally or in writing, not only reinforces the error among those who make it, but also spreads it to those who don't. The remedies for the two types of errors (usage and syntax) differ, and our exception concerns errors of usage.

Errors of Usage

     "Usage" involves the "Don't" of the rules of etiquette, such as: "Don't say 'Me and him went to the store.'" "Don't use a double negative." ("We haven't got none.") "Don't use a double comparative." ("Gwynn is a more better batter.") and "Don't begin a sentence with 'but.'" In no case that I have ever seen does an error in usage result in misunderstanding, or even in lack of clarity. The rules of usage describe how educated people are supposed, by other educated people, to speak and write. They are rules of etiquette! And in some cases, as in the rule about "but," they are themselves erroneous. As teachers, we have no right to force them upon our students outside our classrooms.
     That does not mean that we should not teach them, but we should teach them for what they are. They are -- at least those that are valid are -- a feature of formal, educated writing and speaking. Our job as teachers is to make students aware of them and to help students see the degree of their validity. Here is where the exception to "formal focus" comes in. Individually or in small groups, students can be given one rule of usage with the assignment of reporting on it, either orally or in writing. A formal class period can be spent either reading or listening to these reports. The reports should include what the students found in manuals of style, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, several of which should be in the school library, if not in the classroom. (The grammar textbooks in the classroom, by the way, should be burned and not replaced. Teaching will improve and money will be saved.) Each report should also include the comments of, let's say, ten educated individuals briefly interviewed by the students. The students should ask these individuals, in addition to their level of education and brief job title, if they think that the rule is valid, why they think so, and how bad they would consider a violation of the rule to be (on a scale of 10 -- very bad, to 1). They might also ask if the interviewee perceives a difference between a violation in something written as opposed to speech. 
     In addition to getting members of the community involved in education, these reports, and the class discussions thereof, will show students (as opposed to being told by the teacher) the validity of whatever rules the teacher assigns. It is then up to the students to decide when and if they want to wear them. The classroom, of course, is at times a formal place. In correcting formal papers, responsible teachers should mark errors of usage. The degree to which these errors should affect the grade should be a matter of individual judgment (or departmental policy).

Syntactic Errors

     Unlike errors of usage, syntactic errors affect the reader's comprehension of what was written or said. If a student writes

Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground.
and means that "he" was thrown from the car, everything is fine. But if he meant that she was thrown from the car, the sentence does not say that. In the KISS Approach, the rules of syntax are validated by our psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language. Anything that violates that model, or that causes the process to crash, is an error.  According to the model, a brain would chunk "Thrown from the car" into one unit, and then chunk that unit to the next word that makes sense -- which in this case is "he." This is, of course, close to the traditionalists discussion of misplaced modifiers, but whereas traditional grammar says "This is the rule because I say so," the KISS Approach says: "This is the model. The model makes sense to your brain. Then according to the model and your brain, the rule has these consequences if you violate it." 
     As I hope to show, unlike the rules of usage, the rules of syntax can always be validated in terms of what will happen in the readers' brains. And these rules extend even to such problems as "its" and "it's" and "to" or "too." Consider:
It's raining. He wanted to go too.
Its raining. He wanted to go to.

"It's" means "it is," so "It's raining." is a normal sentence easily processed. But "its" means "belonging to it." A reader processes the "Its raining" and expects a verb after it, as in "Its raining made them cancel the picnic." The period therefore causes  confusion -- a crash. "To" always raises the expectation "to what?" "Too" never does. A person who reads "He wants to go to" is expecting something such as "to the store," or "to swim." The period thus causes confusion -- either something is missing, or the word is spelled wrong.
     An occasional syntactic error may be no big deal, but a paper that is salted with them likely presents pretty barren reading. A reader's brain must use short-term memory not just for processing sentence structure, but also to keep track of the writer's thesis, topic sentences, etc. Just as blood rushes to any wound, the focus of STM shifts to any crash site. If, in the process of reading, one's brain has to deal with a "to" error, then, in essence, STM is invaded by superfluous questions -- "Misspelling?" "Something missing? "What's missing?" When these questions take up slots in a seven-slot STM, something else -- perhaps the writer's thesis? -- is likely to get shoved out. Simply put, the more such errors there are in an essay, the less likely the reader is to get something fruitful out of it.

     The way to help students with syntactic errors is not to present them with a bunch of band-aide rules that focus on covering the errors. Teach them how sentences and punctuation are supposed to work -- and teach them by using real texts (Burn those textbooks!) including samples of their own or their peers' writing. Students who know how sentences and punctuation work, and who can apply that knowledge to their own writing and reading, do not need to know the names of, or to be given examples of, errors. The KISS Approach provides students with the instruction that they need. For the benefit of teachers, I am flanking each level of the KISS Approach with explanations of typical student errors relevant to that level and of how the KISS Approach will help students overcome them.

Errors of Pronoun Reference

     Because the KISS Approach concerns how words syntactically function in sentences, and because pronouns can function in any way that nouns can, KISS does not directly address students' problems with pronouns. As in many other aspects of the teaching of grammar, both too much and not enough are being done.
     I can't figure out why students need to know the names of so many types of pronouns -- relative, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, possessive, reflexive. Year after year we have been trying to cram all these names into students' brains, and the students forget all of it,  including the one group they should remember, the personal. The personal pronouns involve simple distinctions:

First person --  the person speaking/writing 
("I," "me," "my," "mine," etc.)
Second person -- The person spoken/written to
("you," "your," etc.)
Third person -- The person spoken/written about
("he," "she," "it," "they," etc.)

Clarifying these distinctions for students may help those who have troubles with shifts in person. ("We went to the park. There you saw big elephants.") We cannot, however, as we now apparently do, just teach these distinctions and forget them. If we do, then students will forget them likewise. It isn't difficult to work these terms into assignments two or three times a year, just enough to keep students from forgetting. ("In your journal for this week, write to someone you haven't seen in a while. Use second person pronouns.")
     I must admit that I myself did not discuss personal pronouns with my students -- that is until two or three came back to report they were having problems. In fields such as Human Services and many of the technologies, first person is verboten. The instructors, incorrectly assuming that we English teachers are doing our jobs, simply told students not to use first person in their papers. The students didn't understand, used first person, and either got lowered grades or got their papers handed back to them to be rewritten. This is, of course, an excellent opportunity to deal with a question of usage -- in some contexts (for example, the autobiographical), first person is required; in others, it is optional, and in others prohibited.
     The other undertaught aspect of pronouns is number. I'm still surprised that so few of my college Freshmen know what the term means in a grammatical context, especially since the concept is not that difficult. English currently distinguishes between one ("she," "he," "it) and more than one ("they"). Grammatically, and this, of course, relates to subject/verb agreement as well,  "singular" refers to words that denote one, whereas "plural" refers to words that denote more than one. Part of the problem is that students see the three terms as isolated, rather than conceptualizing "singular" and "plural" as the two subdivisions of "number." Errors in agreement can present psycholinguistic processing hazards -- "One can see their own reflections in the pond." But the distinction between one and more than one has major logical, philosophical, and psychological implications. A writer who can't keep track of whether he is referring to one or to more than one is not thinking very clearly. And if the writer isn't thinking, why should a reader bother to read what he wrote?

     The KISS Approach, it should be clear, will not solve all of students' problems with usage and pronoun reference. Some time will have to be spent on usage, preferably, as noted above, individually or in small groups, and students should be taught a few things about pronouns. But because it focusses on meaning, and because it focusses on the meaning and function of every word in every sentence, the KISS Approach will help. The student who wrote "We went to the park. There you saw big elephants." doesn't really need an explanation of grammatical person; he simply needs to be asked, "Why should I see big elephants because you went to the park?"

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