How much does grammar matter?

A few weeks ago, I had a great consultation with one of my ID1 students: she had come with a really interesting first draft in which she unpacked how much of a badass feminist icon the antagonist of a graphic novel series was. She came into the session concerned about her balance between plot and analysis (and, like most first years, it was evident that too much space was given to plot). Through reading some paragraphs out loud and discussing what she cared about most in her essay, we were able to reallocate more space to her important analysis and create a revision timeline. I was happy with her enthusiasm for her essay and the reorganization plan we built. But in the last minutes of our session, she casually mentioned that she had a difficult time understanding verb tenses, as time is indicated separately from the verb in her first language. Yes, I had noticed that the verb tenses were inconsistent and awkward; however, those scattered errors did not prevent me from understanding and appreciating her original analysis. I had simply viewed those little mistakes as first draft typos that would be quickly corrected before the final draft.

How much does grammar matter? In this case, I had breezed over the occasional misuse of various tenses—they had not at any point caused me to stumble over or reread passages. As an ID1 intern, at what point should I provide guidance/strategies/resources for grammar improvement? If the ideas are still clearly communicated, would stepping in suggest that certain writers/voices should be privileged over others? As long as the paper communicates effectively, is there much value in putting value on “proper grammar”?

Also, mini-tangent on the literary present: last week, I went to a really interesting English department talk about the different forms of the present tense (literary present included). One of the points in favor of the literary present is that it gives the reader a sense of proximity to the work as it unfolds—the literary present is conveyed as intuitive. Yet to push against this notion of intuitiveness, I think of one of my ESL students. The use of the literary present was not intuitive to her at all: in recounting past events, the past tense was the more logical option (still not entirely logical, however, as time and verb were not inherently connected from her perspective). To what extent is the claimed intuitiveness of the literary present linguistically exclusive and not universal across cultures?

4 thoughts on “How much does grammar matter?

  1. Great post, Kate. I’ve also been thinking lately about how the Writing Center seems to implicitly de-prioritize grammar as a concern, and I think it comes down to how tutors are trained to help the majority of students. In general, I think we are taught that students who visit the Writing Center will need help with the content and/or structure of their essay, and that these concerns will take precedent over what you deem “first draft typos” such as grammar and spelling. This might have something to do with an (unspoken yet probably still extant) assumption that students who come to the Writing Center are fluent in English and can thus self-correct formal mistakes. But for a student who is still getting comfortable with English, grammar might indeed top the list of priorities. I think that in these cases, the tutor should scale their consultation goals to what the particular student needs. In other words, a student learning English might do well to have a consultation that focuses significantly on grammar and usage, while a student who is fluent in English can probably do without these concerns.

  2. Hey Kate! Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences about balancing grammar and ideas/organization! I agree that it’s a tricky line; however, if a student specifically brings a grammar concern to attention (even if it’s casual), it would be helpful to take time to give a few pointers/examples or direct them to a resource. Also, although the reader might feel that the ideas are communicated clearly regardless of flaws in standard grammar, the writer may find value in talking about grammar. Often times, writers may gain a sense of authority when they feel that they are learning more about standard English conventions (or learning to play the game to put it in real terms). I personally found writing more enjoyable and valuable the more I learned and mastered the conventions. Another tip that may help you make the judgment call is diagnosing what kind of grammar issue needs to be addressed. Focusing on the 6 common error types summarized by Linville might be helpful, especially because most of those errors are more linked to clearer communication than other errors, such as capitalization. Hope this helped!

  3. Katie,
    Thanks for sharing with us your experience tutoring this ESL student? I think your post raises interesting questions about the idea of first-order concerns and second-order concerns. I think that the appropriate time to mention grammar errors, while appropriately keeping first-order concerns in mind, is if the error is consistent throughout the paper. Then, in my opinion, is when grammar becomes a first-order concern for the tutor, especially with an ESL student; because grammar after all, has a direct effect on the reader’s understanding of a text, especially in regards to the use of the literary present. If an error is pervasive and impinges upon the clarity of the essay’s meaning, than it should be addressed within the session so that student can correct this issue to give clarity to his thoughts.
    I hope this post appropriately addressed your concerns.

    -Ian

  4. Thank you all for your responses! My main concern when writing this post (which I don’t think I articulated clearly) was the role of grammar when the ideas were already communicated clearly. I think Linville provided great strategies to recognize grammatical error patterns and address them, but I didn’t feel like she really gave any reason to emphasize grammar outside of facilitating clear communication. So, thank you Julie—I really appreciate you insight specifically with regards to grammar mastery providing a sense of ownership. I think that notion shifts the role of grammar: instead of facilitating communication, grammar acts as a source of validation. I also think this alternate role of grammar extends beyond the writer’s own sense of ownership and validation: it also establishes the author’s authority for the reader. As much as I am trying to unlearn judgmental behaviors, I have noticed that when I read opinions that differ from my own I am inclined to dismiss statements based on grammatical errors. Just as a strong foundation in grammar gives the author ownership over their writing, that foundation can also solidify their authority with respect to judgmental readers. Though I am aware of my harmful judgments and am working to unlearn this behavior, the dismissal of ideas based on their grammatical representation extends beyond me. I can see how important it can be for students who already experience marginalization to develop a strong understanding of grammar so their ideas can be considered fully.

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