Handling Grammar and Usage in Papers

Black & white sketch of pencils

Indiana-Purdue Univ. English Instructor, Louisa Danielson shares her strategy for establishing language rules early in the semester and stem the tide of common grammatical errors.

At the beginning of the semester, you never know what the range of grammar efficiency is that you will find in your students. Depending on the course you are teaching, there could be those who are highly experienced in writing. And then, there are those who seem to view writing as a unique practice of the elite, like the couch potato views marathon running.

While some reluctant writers are well versed in the standard machinations of English grammar and usage, others are not. And as the teacher, you are left wondering how to handle it. “Do I mark every overcapitalized word? What about can’t and cannot? And what if I can’t tell what a sentence was supposed to mean?”

Pause and Refresh

Stop and take a deep breath. Remember, this will only last one semester, and the hardest part starts now. Discovering the gaps makes you aware of how the semester will shape up. While you may anticipate the grading of some papers with a touch of trepidation, there should be no wild surprises after you’ve taken care of the first round of papers.

Marking paper for grammar mistakesIt would be wonderful if you could fix, magically, all the grammar and usage woes you find in the classroom. But you can’t. That is why there are reading and writing specialists, who help people get down to the roots of their issues. As a general writing instructor, you probably don’t have enough time to do one-on-one counselling for multiple students in one semester. Some things, instead of being cured, must be endured. Your job becomes that of being a manager. You are the damage control expert, curbing the maverick usages into an orderly herd of words and thoughts.

How to Get It Done

Sounds great, right? Can you prevent every glitch? No. But you can begin to straighten out the wildness. Here’s where you start.Towards the beginning of the semester, create a brief handout or mailer about frequent issues that you’ve seen crop up in many students’ writing. Be generic, friendly and informative. Instead of creating the new manifesto of grammar dictums, focus on a few ideas that you wish to see done according to standard grammar requirements.

Maybe it’s the “less vs. fewer” debate, Grammar checklistor the confusion over the apostrophe in “its” and “it’s.” Maybe you can just label some basics – as in “This is a verb, this is a noun, and this is what a complete sentence is.” Post the handout to your class web board, or send it out with the syllabus.

With this handout, you are working to identify the correct way to use the language. The handout lets the students know that you will be noticing specific techniques in their writing. This handout gives them a heads-up on how to handle these things ahead of time.

It’s all Good

Why focus on the good things that can be done, instead of the errors?

I find that it helps to discuss that which is correct or admirable, instead of hammering on errors that, possibly, many students never even knew, much less planned to use. If you present something as a “Here – this will be the right way to address it,” it seems to go a lot further than marking all misuses in all the papers that are turned in over the semester. For some reason, marking every “they’re” that is incorrect doesn’t sink in. But handing out a brief how-to-improve handout seems to reduce the number of errors you see.

Is this the Elixir of Good Grammar?

No. Having a handout at the beginning of the semester will not fix every issue you see. It isn’t a magic potion. But it does bring awareness to your standards and to the cause of good grammar usage. The question is, why does a handout work?Student reviewing grammar guidelines

It could boil down to awareness. If the student has never been made aware of the difference in use between fewer (which refers to items that can be counted, as in “there were fewer students present on test days”) and less (which refers to unmeasurable things, like “there is less rain falling now”), he or she doesn’t even realize that there is a mistake in his or her paper. And no amount of commenting, highlighting, and end noting seems to fix that error.

On the other hand, bringing awareness to the fact that there is a better way to perform the language makes people realize that, “I didn’t know that. But I can fix it.” And that’s just what you want to have happen.


Here’s a few online resources to help students understand basic English grammar and language rules:

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Louisa Danielson
Louisa Danielson, B. A., M. A., teaches English composition at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. Articles by Louisa have appeared in a variety of publications, including Dialogue: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, South Texas English Studies, The Musical Times and several popular publications. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or grading English, Louisa likes to explore classical music.

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