The pedagogical problem of “usage”

It’s rare for a native speaker of English to write a sentence that is truly ungrammatical. The errors that most writers face are at the level of syntax and, especially, usage. Where do we put commas? How do we integrate quotations into our sentences? How do we maintain parallelism in lists? Those kinds of issues are unimportant from the perspective of the ideas expressed, though they can reach a point where meaning is obscured. They are important, however, to the reception of a writer’s work, to how seriously it is taken. Fair or not, a pattern of haphazard deviations from standard written English undermines a writer’s credibility — and so teaching students how to overcome those problems is very important.

I must admit, though, that I’m not quite sure how. In fact, sometimes I despair that if a person has not picked up an eye for such details by a certain point in their life, it’s just not a fixable problem. I can spot-check and explain things if students seem to have one or two recurring problems (which is already a privilege, since my class sizes are very small), but if they have more comprehensive difficulties, what does one do? I’ve written before that one can’t have real conscious control over comma usage without understanding the grammatical structure of one’s own sentences, a rule that I would extend to most if not all syntax and usage issues — but sitting them down with a grammar book hardly seems to be the answer.

As I reflect on my own experience, it seems that the point where I really began to understand English grammar was when I began learning Spanish in high school. I’ve heard similar stories from others, and it makes sense: you’re forced to think about grammar because you can’t fall back on your native proficiency. Perhaps this is a good reason to include a foreign-language requirement in high school and college — not to learn to speak the language (which is almost impossible to achieve through classroom instruction alone), but to learn about language “as such,” to gain the distance necessary for reasoned reflection on grammar.

Yet that seems unsatisfactory for a lot of obvious reasons. I’m hardly going to tell the student who has more comprehensive usage problems to go learn French and get back to me. What do others think?

20 thoughts on “The pedagogical problem of “usage”

  1. I’ve been idly thinking about this a lot recently. I earn some money on the side as an SAT tutor. Ironically, the parts of the test that originated from IQ tests (math and reading) are highly teachable, exactly because very little outside knowledge is required, only a certain mode of approach. The grammar/usage parts, on the other hand, are comparatively difficult to teach, and I sometimes feel like the only real advice I could give would be, “Well, just go back in time and read a lot as a kid.”

    I personally always find that learning a new language puts into relief the conventions I take for granted in my native language, but that’s also because I care, whereas most high school students never really get over the hump of the non-transferability of their native-language intuitions.

  2. Adam,

    I concur about the personal experience. I really wasn’t fit as an editor, despite my education, until I mastered French. I think that the suggestion to learn a foreign language is a good one, but not good for most cases. In the general case, I would recommend reading classics of English literature and more practice writing. I presume Shimer has the equivalent of a writing center? Send students to it in droves as a prerequisite to submitting essays. In fact, if you want to be slightly draconian, you could to some degree require it. That’s touchy, but I find that one has to manage being kind and forceful when it comes to writing.

  3. We don’t have a writing center, but in any case, that’s just displacing the problem: how does the writing center itself teach this stuff? Surely they don’t have some esoteric knowledge unaccessible to non-writing-center employees.

  4. Around here, where it is imagined (whether real or not) that French immersion provides a better primary through secondary education, the usual joke is that it produces students who are illiterate in two languages. This, of course, cuts against the original motivation for enrolling children in such a program, but it’s not like people are rational to begin with.

    In terms of personal anecdotes–which seems to be the currency of these matters–I didn’t become a moderately literate writer until I started to give a fuck about my writing. The “literature” likely says, “Have the students write a lot, point out the errors, but don’t be an ass about it.” There’s likely a connection between reading competent to good writing and being able to write competently.

  5. I suppose the argument for a writing center would be that the staff there could focus exclusively on writing, and could spend time teaching writing mechanics without taking time away from the actual content of the course. Then again, one runs into the usual problems of assembly-line education with this: it’s one thing to separate the making of a widget into its component processes, and another to imagine that you can teach language and ideas separately from each other.

    (Having been raised by wild journalists, I was always a bit puzzled that other students didn’t have an immediate grasp of how sentences fit together. How could they even use language if they didn’t know how it worked? Looking back, I suspect I got a bit of a free ride on my more questionable intellectual efforts because I could at least write in a way that didn’t aggravate my profs’ migraines.)

    I’m really not sure what the solution could be for this. Certainly extensive reading and writing will help, and I’m confident that if you compare writing from almost any given student in year 1 at Shimer to that student’s writing in year 4, you’ll see a dramatic improvement. But the real challenge is those last few percentage points of polish, and getting a handle on that can take a lifetime.

  6. Adam,

    Perhaps I should have been more explicit. I meant to propose that one could address the problem through a lot of one-on-one working through of structured essay writing given a backdrop of reading many examples of excellent English. Hence, I figured that a writing center could give that, whereas you, or any professor, may not be able to dedicate that amount of time teaching a subject.

  7. I’m not sure if you’re asking how to directly teach usage, or how you could seamlessly integrate that into your other teaching. However, I actually think that you can help a student eliminate quite a few usage errors pretty quickly by starting with teaching them about independent clauses and how they can be joined together. First, they need to memorize the three conditions of an independent clause (subject, predicate, complete thought/action). From there, commas can be used to provide introductory/interrupting/concluding info, to join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjuction, or to link an independent clause with a dependent clause.

  8. With Stephen,

    I took it that Adam wasn’t asking the question of exactly how to teach it; please correct me if I am wrong. I suspect that some of us might say something unexpected, but on the whole I bet us humanities professors have heard it before. I can offer a more detailed response if wanted … which would bore everyone to tears perhaps.

  9. I would echo the sentiments of “Well, just go back in time and read a lot as a kid” — but a student can also start later. They need to read, read, read. It can be anything from academic literature to sports commentary, as long as it’s written in a professional and edited way so as to teach the student the conventionally accepted norms.

    Learning a foreign language seems like it’d help with bigger issues of grammar, but immersion in English literature seems like it’d be a better solution for learning things like where to use commas, how to integrate quotations, etc.

  10. While I would generally agree with “more reading,” I would not recommend reading anything, such as sports literature, because most publicly available writing is written at too low a grade level to be informative. Especially entertainment reading, which is often too colloquial, and too many of my students write exactly like they would speak. That’s why I suggested classics, since one can go from Jules Verne to Herman Melville, spanning different reading levels and sophistication. Also, I refer students (usually non-native speakers) to the University of South Florida’s free archive of English language audiobooks. If they won’t read, maybe listen….

  11. I would also caution about “just send them to the writing center” as a solution unless you have a good idea of what the writing center sees its purpose as. My experience with being sent to the writing center in both undergraduate and graduate school was that they were largely useless for the sort of issues Adam is asking about in his post. They seemed happy to talk about structures of essays, or writing thesis statements – all the things I am naturally pretty good at. But the more basic grammar stuff like usage or punctuation they tended to dismiss or just tell me things like “you need to proof read more” and left me feeling more frustrated than before I saw them. Which is all to say I suspect they really didn’t know how to teach it any more than anyone else – or worse didn’t get that it was something people needed to be taught not just a sign of laziness.

  12. “too many of my students write exactly like they would speak.”

    I find the opposite to be the problem: the worst writers come out with sentences they would never utter in a million years. Really bad sentences don’t come off the tongue very easily.

    My problem is that I just write by ear and don’t know many of the rules or even terms, so I have a hard time teaching others how to write proper English.

  13. Bzfgt, I’ve seen that, but very rarely. I suspect demographics matter much on this issue.

    Rachael, I wouldn’t disagree that a writing center might be ineffective, but teaching such things is in fact their duty and not the duty of most humanities faculty. I face the same problem that Adam notes: student’s lack of ability greatly limits their ability to learn course material, and I am not practiced at teaching remedial English. The point is that we should not take on duties that are not ours and for which we may not be the best teachers, at least as a general rule.

    All that said, I’m told I offer more essay commentary than their other teachers, so I’m not dismissing our duty.

  14. I agree with the spirit of the post, but disagree with the major premise. In my experience, it’s common for native English speakers to write in basically ungrammatical fashion when you ask them to write about the sorts of things that teachers of college-level humanities are supposed to ask them to write about. I agree with bzfgt that the problem arises most typically when students write sentences that they would never, ever speak. This is sometimes just laziness, of course, but it’s normal for college material, and/or the academic manner, to induce basic incompetence, even when the students are trying.

    Some students don’t reread and rewrite because they wrote it right before it was due. No mystery what the problem is there. But some students don’t like rereading and rewriting, not because they don’t care, but because it’s painful (of course) and they don’t have a lively enough sense of the degree of intellectual improvement that could come from that. They want to talk about ideas and get frustrated when you derail that with nit-picks about ‘word choice’. They sort of figure all the improvement that they could, painfully, make could as easily, painlessly, come from the reader agreeing to meet them halfway by ‘getting what they meant’.

    The challenge, in such cases, is to combine college-level intellectual engagement – which the students genuinely desire – with the need for remedial work. It’s not that the class is a mix of competent students, in the right place, and incompetent, who should ideally be sent to some writing center instead. Most individual students are a weird mix of competence – they get the material well enough to get something out of it – and incompetence. They are capable not just of error but of gibberish. Good pedagogy should combine high level engagement with ideas with running an in-house remedial writing (and reading) lab on the side. (Students’ reading comprehension is just as intermittently terrible as their writing.)

    My current students are sort of a special case, English-wise. They are a mix of competence and incompetence for local, bilingual reasons. But I felt very strongly that this was the way of things even when I was TA’ing at Berkeley. I remember overhearing a fellow TA meeting with a student in the cubicle next to mine. She had inferred from his writing (or maybe from his writing plus a weird name, I dunno) that he was a non-native speaker, and commented accordingly on some paper. Of course it turned out he was a perfectly competent native speaker, and didn’t seem to be a complete idiot, which made the paper comments embarrassingly insulting. As teachers, we need to break the bad news – ‘you are really not writing competently’ – while at the same time reassuring them that this is normal and fixable – ‘You’re not an idiot. The material is just messing with your head. We can work on it.’ Just delivering the message in this way is sometimes enough to get a good result. Because students, who know they speak English natively, will naturally resist being told they can’t write it, because 1) that’s too depressing; 2) how can you possibly learn something that you already know, i.e. English?

    I do agree that when it gets to the finer points of style, it’s hard to see even how to bring the horse to water. Students who want to become good writers will work at it and mostly get it. Those who aren’t self-motivated can’t be prodded in all the little ways that would induce their writing to be exactly correct in all those little ways.

    Maybe you really have unusually good students, Adam. Maybe small liberal arts colleges are better at getting good students or – more likely – getting them to give the requisite damn about it early on.

  15. I concur with John’s comments and the sense I get from them: correct me if I’m wrong.

    Many of my students do not realize that they are incompetent. Their proximate incompetence is demonstrated in one of two ways, which I mention to aid our current audience to diagnose and correct it. First, the student does not realize how crucial proper grammar and syntax is to communicate: the individuals may admit sloppiness, but doesn’t realize that it makes the essay nearly incomprehensible to others. Second, the student writes from and to him or herself. The way I put it to students is that they leave too many of their thoughts in their mind and not on the page, and thus anyone else who reads it cannot fill-in the missing thoughts. I implore them to read their own papers based on exactly what is written and not what they meant.

    I could offer many suggestions. One that has helped my students is to have peer review. I am amazed at how well students can critique each other’s work, but commit the same kind of errors that they critique.

    Personal note. I find the ease at which I write to differ vastly depending upon the context. All my professional writing comes hard, while my causal writing does not. I suspect I see in myself the same problem that I see in my students–especially back when I was a math tutor. We can become so emotionally involved and wrought-up in an act, unknown to ourselves, that it greatly affects the performance of that act. When I was a math tutor I saw my main job as tackling emotional and confidence issues, and I suspect that’s still well at work in most students’ writing. My own is no exception.

  16. I’m grading essays right now. I slather on the praise no matter what, especially if the student is performing above level, since I don’t want to encourage regress. How to balance criticism with encouragement is a fine art.

    I had a student come to me and hold back tears. We worked through the essay for an hour–all while the seemingly agressive guy was near tears–and he has been the much better for it since. Usually, students in his position cannot be dragged into my office. If I had the time, I would require office visits. Would you consider that, Adam?

  17. Here’s how I address the problem given my workload.

    I require that students rewrite the essays per my comments. That forces them to work through what I said. If they do not rewrite the essay, they lose a letter grade. This makes grading the revisions simpler, and encourages them to do it. If they rewrite it, they can gain a letter grade. Again, this makes grading simpler, and it allows me to have varying levels of standards for different student abilities. For instance, I do a lot of criticism of style and word usage for my advanced students, whereas the less advanced get advice in basic composition and logic. They all get graded on the same level the first time through, but differently upon the rewrite. And grading the rewrite can be fast, because it’s mostly yes-or-no. Did they do it? I use Microsoft’s “compare changes” feature that makes all changes even more obvious.

    Perhaps this detailed practical approach might be informative. If I weren’t under such a load, I would require outlines in advance for these argumentative papers, since I would be able to spot basic composition and logic problems quite early.

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