The issue of grammar

John Bean’s “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness” (2001) is essential reading for anyone who is going to be working with writers.

It is incredibly easy when looking over someone else’s work top focus only on the surface problems that you can see in the text such as “bad grammar”, which as Bean notes is often the non-standard way of saying something. When we focus solely on the grammar of a piece though we lose sight of the bigger picture. Helping someone correct their grammar in a piece will give them a grammatically correct essay but it will not improve their skill as a “good” writer.

A piece of writing which is well-written will have strong ideas which are developed and explained in detail. It will also have a clear and organised structure to it. These aspects of writing however, cannot hope to be improved through the improvement of grammar but as Bean highlights in his piece grammar is often improved through the improvement of idea development and structure of an essay. As mentors then we should try to focus much more on what is actually written rather than how it is written.

It may also be counter-productive to constantly be drawing the writer’s attention to their grammatical mistakes because it may make them lazy or encourage them that these are the only problems in the piece. The writer who is told how many mistakes he has made and where they are in his paper will no doubt correct these when he comes to revise his work. He will probably not look at the rest of the writing as a whole though because his attention has been drawn to other areas. Mentors and advisors to writers are well placed to help the writer in the improvement of their work through our discussion about the work in front of us which prompts the writer to reconsider how something is structured or whether their argument is clear.

In short then it is important to remember, when doing our own writing or helping someone else with theirs, that although grammar does play a role in “good” writing it is not the biggest factor. If we focus too much time and energy on “fixing” work then we may fail to notice the bigger problems that are present in a piece of work.

Reference: Bean, J.C. (2001) Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning into the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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