Grammar as a Rancher’s Chore

The following article appeared in the Faculty Voice column of the Spring 2005 Out of WAC Newsletter.

by Lynn Rudmin-Chong

Here I stand, at the second meeting of Advanced Composition, spring term 2005. My plans include a handout compiling seven sentences gleaned from students’ writing samples. Because I require the Little, Brown Compact Handbook among their texts, I’ll have them practice using it. Another handout is sunny yellow and shares their self-described writing challenges, divulged that first class.

“I have trouble wording things, and a little bit of trouble with grammar mistakes”; “I write fragmented sentences and run-ons, and could use more diverse vocabulary”; “paragraphing, starting new paragraphs instead of running them together as I do. I am bad with proof-reading”; and “(Editing) getting past dependence on others – I’d like to have more confidence in my abilities to discern what is strong and what is weak in my writing”; and “I am a writing major but am uncomfortable with mechanics, spelling, punctuation.”

The gate is open; they worry enough about writing mechanics — and most of them are third-, fourth-, fifth-year English majors, many in the writing option — that I can go ahead confidently and review with them their seven sentences. I’ve marked the sentences with the number/letter “codes” used to organize the examples and explanations in the Little, Brown Compact Handbook.

I share with the class that in my just-finished Winterim Advanced Composition class of sixteen students, probably two actually worked on improving their writing to meet standard English requirements. “We had only three weeks together,” I tell this new class. I understand; I forgive. English mechanics can be only remotely — if at all — interesting to most. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him or her drink.

“You’ve a whole term before you. Of you twenty here, it may be three of you who work consistently on correct usage and mechanics. It is up to you. Your choice.” I have their attention even more when I say, “Last year I had a student who calculated that each hour and fifteen minutes of Advanced Composition cost him $86.72. That’s before the interest on his loans. He never missed class, and he wanted to do everything he could to make his money well spent. He did this work on his mechanics and grammar.”

“Some of you will want to use your writing professionally. This may be the last time you have a chance to conform, really learn English — standard English. Not knowing why you use a comma, or what pronoun to use before that gerund might be the equivalent, sometime, of wearing the wrong kind of clothes to work. Embarrassing.” Heads are nodding, male as well as female. I put green Expo pen to white board and give them a visual lesson about gerunds, and how they can require possessive pronouns. His running. My skiing. I tell them, “Many of you are such avid and observant readers that you already know this and do it, but may not know why.” I see agreement on their faces, also relief. Some of what they do correctly is safe, just unconscious.

I have them open their handbooks, pointing out that inside the front cover in short form are all the concerns of the book. To know reasons behind their choices, however, they really need to use the colored page-edge tabs and look at samples, read explanations. This book is an oasis. I have them look at the index in the back. Picky, picky! Everything is here. Not just gerunds, but “gerund phrases defined,” “grammar/style checkers for,” “possessives before,” and “after verbs.”

They work in pairs on the seven needy sentences, and I am satisfied to overhear the conversations when they collaboratively puzzle. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook does a fine section on wordiness, and the instances in the seven sentences I’ve marked 16 or 16e (for general wordiness, for wordiness involving there is /there are forms) inspire conversation all around the room. Never before have I mentioned Caleb’s calculation of $86.72 per class or wearing wrong clothes to work. Is that it?

We have such an enthusiastic coming together over the corrections that I wonder why it is in my sixtieth year, my maybe thirty-third year of teaching, that I’ve finally done this well? Is it the era? The room? These particular students? The seven sentences themselves which, I’ve told them, probably encompass what most students are prone to for stumbling? I tell them, “I will mark your sentences, this first homework, with the numbers and letters. I will do it once more with your mid-term portfolio essays, but that’s all. It adds about a half hour per paper for me to do this. Maybe three of you will actually use my hard work.” They laugh. I do too.

Another semester I expressed to students that I am “probably weird.” In seventh and eighth grade in New York State, where the teachers prepared us for the Regents Examinations, I paid devoted attention to Mrs. Allen. I loved learning everything she had to teach about English. We had two English classes each of those junior high years: English – reading to do, and Language Arts – mechanics and grammar. Both of them suited my brain to a T. I had a long list of favorite books. I wanted to diagram sentences, as we did in Language Arts, and I remember most of us did plunge in and enjoy that. It was puzzle-solving. We looked for complex sentences, thinking we could stump Mrs. Allen or at least each other. We understood exactly what was lacking in “graduating high school” or “graduating college,” heard or read these days everywhere, even on National Public Radio. You couldn’t join high school or college to the sentence, diagrammed, without the preposition from. Imagine speaking that way, writing that way! We loved our drills with gerunds and other participles.

Something else: when I told that particular class, “I am probably weird, but.,” a couple of women and men signaled with facial expressions that they, too, like standard English’s challenges. Later I discovered that they planned to go into teaching.

Shouldn’t university graduates feel comfortable with standard English? Don’t we owe them this corralling and rounding up, which we programmatically promise when we take charge of them in a writing class or a class designated to have a writing focus? Yet, it’s mildly embarrassing for some teachers to pay attention to what may seem flourishes, no more than that, because punctuation is off or grammar is not standard. It feels so much more positive to regard imagination. Yet, I maintain it can be done with a good handbook and with the weather on our side: the students who improve are people putting in extra time, puzzling.

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