Tag: grammar

Writing by Delighting


Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

“Gollum threw himself backwards, and grabbed as the hobbit flew over him, but too late: his hands snapped on thin air, and Bilbo falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel. He did not turn to see what Gollum was doing. There was a hissing and cursing almost at his heels at first, then it stopped. All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair. Gollum was defeated.” (Tolkien, 87)

         This is a scene from The Hobbit, written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In context, a Hobbit finds himself in a cave, separated from his friends, with a little, hungry creature named Gollum, ready to eat him if he didn’t solve his riddles. Thankfully, the Hobbit solved the riddles, escaped the unnerved Gollum, and eventually, found his friends. However, as a writer, reflect for a moment. What provided the scenes dramatic nature? Grammar. Tolkien includes six commas to slow down the scene.  He carefully uses the colon — a prelude to the dramatic outcome of the scene. And lastly, he uses the period to drive home the scene. These are the simple beauties of grammar within a model text. Our breath stops for a moment, like Bilbo’s, as we await his escape or demise, and in the process, we are delighted.

         This scene is useful for our main concern: As teachers, what moves can we make to unite teaching grammar and student learning? This question is scrutinized by the best in the field, yet a solution seems elusive. Often, grammar is taught in moves that simply request the  regurgitation of information. However, when our “bright” writers come to writing samples, the findings are disheartening. Students writing shows no sign of improvement and as new students come in, the cycle continues. In the article, Reconceptualizing the Teaching of Grammar, Weaver asserts that learning “seems to be most enduring when the learners perceive it as USEFUL or INTERESTING to them personally, in the here and now.” It seems that Weaver is asserting that we should teach grammar indirectly, through means of delight. Whether reading of the boy who lived or the Sonnets of Shakespeare, both are avenues of delight for a variety of students, proving useful for our ends as teachers. As I reflect, I am reminded of my freshman year in college. My English 102 Professor, Dr. Amy Crider, challenged us to find writers we admire and work on imitating their writing style. As English 101 and 102 courses have a knack for creativity, my interest was peeked. Thus, my search began. As I discovered beautiful writing, writing became more alive to me. “How did Flannery O’Connor paint a world that was darkly comical? How did J. K. Rowling create such gravity in the final scene? What would happen if I remove the commas from this paragraph? Let’s consider syntax.” All these questions bubble up, but why? Indirectly, Dr. Crider was using my delight in model texts as a means to teach grammar. I argue as instructors, we ought to take the same road. Learning the  conventions of grammar is inherently grueling and full of mystery, yet, when we provide students moments to see grammar through lenses of delight, their stance changes.

         In another article, The Case for Rhetorical Grammar, Micciche states “This intimacy with the language of others can be an enormously powerful way to impress upon students that writing is made and that grammar has a role in the production.” Micciche’s claim reiterates the usefulness of model texts. In short, when students analyze model texts they are delighted by – novel, poem, paragraph – a productive space is created for teaching grammar. Why? The student is no longer focused on distant formalities that are required of a sentence. Instead, they are delighted, entering the world of the author, and hungry to figure out how the author made that delight erupt into their reading experience. And notice the subtle change, it is intimate, no longer distant. The writing is beautiful, humorous, or full of wit, and the student is left wondering “how did they do that?” A teacher happily responds: “The writer made intentional choices with their words to bring that effect. Now class, what would we have lost if they didn’t understand the uses of grammar?” As we can see, now students disposition towards grammar changes, as they have become focused on replicating the grammatical moves of writers, because they were required? No, because they were delighted. Grammar is no longer seen as mere conventions and formalities, but the freedom to create beauty. As students push into that reality, I suspect, the teacher to beam with a quiet triumph. Why? The teacher has brought them to their goal: Learning.

The Dreaded Comma

Jacob Robbins, Consultant

Here at the Writing Center, we religiously emphasize addressing the needs of the writer over the needs of the writing.  In an ideal session, the written work serves only to illuminate the so-called “higher order” needs of the writer such that we can directly help the writer improve not just the piece itself, but also the strategies he or she employs.  However, as any writing consultant with a modicum of experience knows, one must often wade through a great deal of apprehension about “lower order” concerns before broaching larger concerns.  So many students’ attitudes (including my own) about writing are saturated and informed by the red, deleterious ink of overzealous instructors.  By virtue of my past instructors’ methodology, I knew what I was doing incorrectly long before I knew what I was doing well.DSCN1622

There are a great number of relatively minor mistakes whose over inflation causes anxiety in writers of all stages.  Perhaps the greatest offender, though, is the failure (perceived or real) to use commas correctly.  The number of students who come to the Writing Center seeking guidance on comma usage tells me that I am far from alone when it comes to my difficulties.  Their papers bear corrections scolding their comma use, but rarely point out when the student has correctly utilized commas, giving them little understanding of their mistakes.

In fact, it is difficult to outline the rules of comma usage because the term itself is a misnomer. Laws do not govern comma use; rather, it is governed almost exclusively by convention.  Correct comma use was never legislated into the English language.  Instead, we depend on those who came before us to point the way, and a larger academic community to affirm these revered progenitors.  As such, there is no such thing as incorrect comma use in the strictest sense.  This is not to say that incorrect comma use is by any means impossible.  However, achieving this understanding helps us think of commas as tools of effective communication, rather than obstacles to it.   This small, semantic piece of information has helped me a great deal in my struggle to overcome the fear of comma misuse, and sharing this with those I tutor seems to help them in much the same way.  Indeed, my experience leads me to believe that reading aloud best helps with understanding comma use, and is certainly far better than barraging students with technical jargon which I barely understand myself.  Along with helping the student recognize their own voice, reading aloud is necessarily an exercise that indicates pauses throughout when the student naturally stops to breathe.  Pointing these out to the students as opportunities to separate their ideas with commas and let the reader breathe help make comma use far less intimidating.

Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: The Musical and Often Muddled Nature of Punctuation in the Writing Center

Michelle Day, Writing Consultant

Like all good children born in the ‘80s, I sang along with Schoolhouse Rock to learn language mechanics in school. But I wish I would have known about this little gem  by L.L. Cool J, a song in which the rapper suspends his usual lyrics in favor of a minute-long exposition on punctuation. Amid flying periods, commas, questions marks, and exclamation points, the rapper declares, “When you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do.”

The content of the video is particularly relevant in light of the 9th annual “National Punctuation Day,” which was Monday. I’m as intrigued as the next person by flying punctuation that obeys L.L. Cool J’s every rhythmic command. However, his refrain, that “you have to know what to do” with punctuation, may mislead writers to think controlling punctuation is as intuitive as L.L. makes it seem. At the Writing Center, we see it differently.

Richard Nordquist, English scholar, professor and writer, writes that the origin of punctuation was for oral—not written—purposes. In ancient Greece and Rome, punctuation denoted how long a speaker should pause when reading out loud (the comma was the shortest mark, while the period was the longest). After the rise of printing, the importance of punctuation became less about speaking and more about writing and proper syntactical relationships. Writers like playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century began to codify the use of punctuation, and today, there are countless style guides and witty-sounding books on grammar that teach often-competing punctuation conventions. (Read Nordquist’s full article here.)

This last point is particularly relevant to our work at the Writing Center. Our clients—even graduate students with strong writing skills—are often unclear on issues as seemingly simple as when to use a comma. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t quite understand tricks teachers have taught them (“put commas wherever you would pause when speaking” is one of the more commonly misapplied tricks). Sometimes, they’re confused by the competing rules they’ve heard from different instructors. Other times, they’ve never been told how to punctuate a quotation correctly or connect complete sentences without creating a run on (or perhaps they weren’t paying attention to such riveting topics).

Even the Writing Center consultants find punctuation rules a little fuzzy. We recently spent a considerable amount of time discussing when it was appropriate to use single quotation marks (“scare quotes”) rather than double quotation marks. There’s also an ongoing tension between those who love the Oxford/serial comma (the comma that comes before the last item in a list of three or more) and those who consider it superfluous. Some of us have even confessed to intentionally breaking punctuation rules. For example, I frequently place commas in the middle of long sentences where they don’t technically belong, just because it feels right.

It’s true that Writing Center consultants likely discuss punctuation more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the average student (we even have a handout titled “Dash-Dash-Revolution” that describes the dash as “exciting”). But we still empathize with our clients’ confusion concerning punctuation and realize as G. V. Carey did that punctuation is decided “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste” (see Nordquist’s article). That’s why we keep stacks of handouts on common punctuation errors, why we sometimes take breaks from higher-order issues of content or organization to give clients some punctuation pointers. It’s why we attempt to be flexible about how clients’ use punctuation in their writing, and why we try not to judge if a students’ only experience using semicolons, parenthesis, and hyphens is typing emoticons.

Since the only way to avoid punctuating sentences is to never pause or stop a sentence, writers will always have to deal with the confusing or undecided aspects of proper punctuation. What are some of the “tricks” you were taught to remember correct punctuation?  Which were helpful, and which weren’t? What resources do you use now to help clients in session?