Dinging for ‘Grammatical Errors’

redxAs many of us prepare to return to the classroom for the fall semester, it seems like a good time to talk about grammar and grading.

Occasionally I poll students about how many of them have had their grade on an essay lowered due to “grammatical errors.” To this day, a significant number say they have experienced this kind of grading. One student this past winter recounted getting a five-point deduction for each use of singular generic they in her first essay for an English class four years ago, resulting in a “C” on the essay. She noted that she has rarely “misused” they since. (For my thoughts on why this is not an error, go here.)

Policies about “grammatical error” in student writing are often created and enforced with the best of intentions. Teachers are striving to help students master the written conventions of standard edited English. Toward this end we are often looking for ways to require students to pay close attention to the conventions of formal academic writing, in addition to writing high-quality academic arguments. A policy such as “More than two grammatical errors per page will result in your essay grade being lowered by a full letter” can certainly get students’ attention. But there are at least two major problems everyone should be aware of with this kind of dinging for “error” in student writing.

One serious problem with dinged-points-per-error policies is that there isn’t consistent agreement among instructors about what constitutes a “grammatical error.”*  If you give five instructors the same 10 sentences of student prose and ask them to identify “errors,” the five will come up with different sets of items. I’ve done this experiment multiple times—and it works every time.

To provide just a few examples, some instructors still consider split infinitives an error, despite the easing of that prescription for over a decade in standard authoritative guides. Some see using different than rather than different from an error; others don’t even know there is a usage issue with that construction.

Some instructors care about the use of that rather than which in restrictive relative clauses; others don’t know the traditional rule well enough to enforce it. Still others have learned that the traditional rule is not well-founded and leave that and which well enough alone.  Hopefully, meaning ‘it is hoped’ or ‘I hope’ (as opposed to ‘full of hope’), flies under the radar for some instructors and is a grammatical bugaboo for others, even in the face of the Associated Press Stylebook’s finally relenting last year and allowing its writers to use hopefully as a sentence adverb (for more, see this post by Geoff Pullum).

This lack of consistency leaves students in the position of having to guess what “errors” a given instructor might ding—constructions that perhaps another instructor has endorsed or at least not noticed. Students can follow my advice and footnote a singular generic they to avoid that five-point penalty, but they can’t possibly footnote every contested usage issue that might be on an instructor’s list of pet peeves (unless, of course, the instructor shares the list).

Second, much of what gets called “grammatical error” is not error, linguistically speaking, and it’s not always about grammar per se.

It is valuable to distinguish between: (a) writing that shows a student may not be aware of the expected conventions of standard written academic English and/or may not yet have developed a sophisticated academic style; and (b) writing that shows a student has not taken the time to proofread for typos and the like. Here are things that I would not call error—which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t alert students to their presence, but not as “errors”:

  • Features of nonstandard varieties of English: If a student writes “she argue” rather than “she argues,” the student may be employing a systematic feature of a nonstandard dialect. We should not be labeling grammatical features of nonstandard English as error—it’s not true, and telling students who employ nonstandard varieties that their language is “wrong” or “ungrammatical” doesn’t effectively support them in learning to code-switch between nonstandard and standard varieties of English.
  • Stylistic infelicities: Lack of parallelism in the syntax of a list or overuse of the passive voice may strike us as not stylistically ideal, but these constructions are not “grammatical errors.”  They may not be aesthetically pleasing, but they are not breaking the grammatical rules that make English sentences meaningful to other speakers and writers.
  • Evidence of language change: Just to name a few examples, on accident is replacing by accident for many younger speakers of American English, who has been encroaching on the territory of whom for centuries, impact has become a verb, and impactful is an adjective (as readers now know, not one of my favorites, but that doesn’t make it “wrong”). The new forms may not be standard yet in all cases, but it is more accurate to see them as innovations rather than “errors.”

It is not that I ignore any of these grammatical and/or stylistic features when I read student work. It is my job to notice them and alert students to their presence, as they hone their mastery of standard edited English.

So here’s what I do: I circle or underline such issues in student writing (note: I do not cross them out—it sends a different message), and I often write questions or notes in the margins about the language choices a student could make at this spot in the writing. In a writing-intensive class, I may require students to work through my comments one by one and write notes back to me about their choices and revisions. Here is a pedagogical strategy that requires students to pay close attention to language at the level of the sentence, learn from their own work, consult available resources about grammar and style, and engage in a conversation with me (and themselves) about the details of their writing and of standard edited academic prose. It works, and it works without inconsistent penalty points or inaccurate labels about “grammatical error.”

With students struggling to master standard punctuation conventions, I may circle the issues and return the essay, asking the student to address all the circles before I grade the essay based on the quality of the argument, of the evidence, and of the prose (as opposed to just the quality of the punctuation of the prose).

If all of this sounds intensive for the instructor and the student, that’s because it is. Teaching writing well is an intensive process. While identifying “errors” may seem like an objective and efficiently rigorous approach to evaluating a student’s written prose, addressing grammar and style is more complicated than “right” and “wrong”—as we know is true of evaluating writing and rhetorical choices at every other level, from argument to evidence to organization.


* I am excluding from these example sentences typos, misspellings, sentences left incomplete because a student forgot to go back and complete them, and other proofreading issues. When we’re asking students to focus on proofreading for typos and the like in a final stage of writing/editing process, then let’s call it that, as opposed to calling it “eliminating grammatical errors.”

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