Friday, February 16, 2007

Grammar and Style Instruction

In "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone," Min-Zhan Lu is actually quite clear about how grammar should be covered in writing classes. She insists on the importance of taking the time to look at every apparent error as a stylistic choice and to let the students figure out what choice might be better. She created handouts over a student using "can able to" so that entire classes could work out what was meant and a better way to say it. Part of her reasoning is that there's something wrong with interpreting student work in a different way than professional work. Lu doesn't believe that you have to earn the right to play with language--she doesn't give published authors special privileges. In response to Theodore Dreiser's willingness to have native English speakers edit the German sound out of his prose, Lu asks, "why do we assume--as Dreiser did--that until one can prove one's ability to produce 'error-free' prose, one has not earned the right to innovative 'style'? (170). And in fact, my high school teachers argued exactly that--you are not allowed to break the grammar rules that you see broken by established authors until you know them well enough.

There does seem to be a bit of logic behind the idea of only breaking the rules you understand. Grammar rules are conventions--breaking those conventions is going to have a particular effect on the reader. You ought to be making an informed choice when you mess with readers' minds. Lu would appear to agree with that point--however, instead of simply naming problems or correcting them, she believes in walking the writer throughout the process, actually helping them to become informed.

Some "grammar errors" are innocuous. Comma splices and run-on sentences are sometimes more effective than their grammatically correct alternatives. When I'm grading papers, I ignore them. When I'm working in the writing center, I frequently point them out and ask the writer to consider whether strict punctuation is more important than the rhythm of the sentence. Most people assume that the correct punctuation is better, even when it reads worse, so they "fix" it. I don't blame them--some professors write assignment sheets that call contractions errors.

Lu insists that we ought to spend this time with students, rather than accepting the fact that we can't. But how useful would it really be to spend twenty minutes on every error in a three-page paper? For one thing, even if you approach it from the standpoint of style, grammar isn't everything. I'd really like to be able to work with my students on supporting arguments part of the time, instead of spending every moment on style. For another, a lot of mistakes aren't as profound as "can able to." Some are editing errors, some are spelling errors, and some even the writer can't explain. While it's good to be able to approach grammar from a stylistic perspective and give writers choices, it seems like rather than actually spending all our time doing this, we can do it occasionally and help students to internalize the idea.

Works Cited

Lu, Min-Zhan. "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone." Representing the "Other": Basic Writing and the Teaching of Basic Writing. Eds. Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu. Urbana:NCTE, 1999. 166-190.


Amy said...

Cool...did you know you can publish to Blogger directly from Google Documents? Saves me a copy and paste.

Anonymous said...

RE: "Grammar rules are conventions--breaking those conventions is going to have a particular effect on the reader. You ought to be making an informed choice when you mess with readers' minds."

I completely agree with this. Conventions are the rules by which we communicate in print. Sometimes it's fun to break the rules, but there are almost always consequences that alter voice and/or meaning.

Gabe Isackson said...

At what point is "walking the student through the process" limited to the teacher and dictated by time, curriculum, and department requirements. I understand her approach, appreciate her time and effort, but does every teacher have the capacity to "walk" the student?
Good blog.