Published on 2012/05/11
A line in the sand needs to be drawn between qualitatively perfect and workforce-ready skills. While it would be nice to develop perfect capabilities, educators’ responsibilities are to make sure their graduates are ready for the workplace. Photo by George.

Not long ago, I was looking for pages to connect with on Facebook, pages related to my particular interests, namely writing. Much to my surprise, I found one called “I judge you when you use poor grammar.” I thought, “That’s me!” But I didn’t have the audacity to connect with the page. It did, however, get me thinking.

Like many things, language is organic. New words are added to the dictionary, and old words are labeled as archaic and all but formally removed from the language. Some grammatical rules are relaxed, and most people think that the grammar and mechanics they use to communicate through sites such as Facebook and Twitter are acceptable for professional emails.

I have a strict sense of what is correct or not with regard to grammar; in other words, I’m old-school about following technically accurate grammatical rules. What I’ve noticed by teaching traditional students and adult learners is that few people, including me, really know and understand grammar at a deeper level. The question, then, is where to draw the line. How do I, as a writing instructor, determine what an acceptable level of grammatical mistakes in college essays is? What makes certain grammatical errors acceptable while others aren’t? Should this line be drawn in sand or jackhammered into cement?

Most students—especially returning and adult students—aren’t interested in pursuing careers that require the use of perfect grammar. Or even, in fact, the use of a comma to separate two independent clauses that are joined by a conjunction to create a compound sentence. What I’ve realized through teaching is that students don’t necessarily need to or want to learn how to write exceptionally well, using perfect word choice, perfect grammar, and perfect syntax. They need to, although don’t always want to, learn how to write proficiently – well enough so they can communicate clearly in academic essays and professional settings, although the documents may include minor errors that most people would overlook.

That means, for most students, I shouldn’t focus on all the missing commas and common pronoun-antecedent agreements. Instead, I should focus on teaching students writing skills that will carry them through their academic and professional careers. I should teach them about clarity and organization, and, for academic writing, thesis statements. I should teach them about writing for an audience and the difference between spoken and written communication. If students leave a college writing course with these skills, they will likely write well enough to earn the respect of their professors and colleagues.

I recently met with Dr. Robert Jackson, an associate professor of English and Education at The King’s College in New York City. I wanted to get his perspective on approaching a certain type of student in the writing classroom – the type of student who writes like he or she speaks, colloquially, and thereby grammatically incorrectly.

Jackson’s response was a fitting analogy: Written language should use a common currency, one that all readers should be able to understand, regardless of what part of the country, or even world, they come from. Spoken language can use a bartering system that two or more speakers, in a given moment, agree to and participate in. In other words, students should adhere to a common currency, a minimum writing standard that serves a broad audience.

What this analogy really comes down to is this: “We was going to the store” might be acceptable, or at least overlooked, in spoken communication, but when that same person wants to make the statement on paper, he or she must correct the grammar to “We were going to the store.” Regardless of who the student is and why the student is receiving an education, there must be a minimum writing standard that all students are required to meet, and this minimum writing standard is the use of what Jackson refers to as common currency.

Based on Jackson’s analogy and my professional and teaching experiences, I have concluded that perfect grammar isn’t as important as using mostly proper grammar and conveying a message clearly to the audience. As a writing instructor, I need to focus on the bigger picture when teaching students, helping them use the common currency when writing for an audience of more than one.

I may always judge people with poor grammar, including myself, but my changing views of how important “perfect” grammar really is will change how I approach teaching composition, particularly when dealing with an adult learning population that needs to learn to write well enough to communicate clearly in professional settings.

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Readers Comments

Rick Poston 2012/05/11 at 8:50 am

This is an interesting article, and applicable across a wide range of disciplines, not just English and language studies.

I am constantly having to balance “what is right” with “what is useful”, and find myself, more often than not, walking a very dangerous tightrope.

You want to make sure you are delivering workforce-relevant learning to your students… but there’s more to life than “what you need at work”, and there’s more to knowledge than simple application.

    Jennifer Brown 2012/05/21 at 11:35 am

    Hi, Rick – This idea really should be addressed across the curriculum because writing is the primary way students (and scholars) express what they’ve learned. Finding that balance is, as you wrote, like “walking a very dangerous tightrope,” but walking that tightrope is exactly what we have to do. One slip and we can damage our reputation and negatively influence our students’ education. What a challenge!

    I like your final statement: “there’s more to knowledge than simple application.” If only everyone pursuing and providing education understood that.

Phil Gunnarson 2012/05/11 at 10:18 am

I guess the question is, what is our purpose? And more often than not, especially for adult students, our purpose is to get them ready to work – no more, no less.

    Jennifer Brown 2012/05/22 at 10:46 am

    Hi, Phil – I agree that asking the question “What is our purpose?” and answering it realistically is an important first step. But to say “our purpose is to get them ready to work – no more, no less” seems really limiting.

    I agree that in many ways, our purpose is to get students ready to work. However, many of them are already ready to work (ready in a sense that they are capable of performing job duties well). If they’re already ready to work, does that mean we should push students through the system simply to get them through? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, many online faculty I’ve encountered disagree, which may be part of the problem with online education. But I digress.

    The point I’m trying to make here is this: To simply get students ready to work, without regard to the quality of the liberal arts education they receive, is to dilute their education to either 1) a degree they’ve bought or 2) vocational training. Or perhaps even both.

    Their education should be worth more than piece of paper on the wall. It should be something that goes beyond practical application. It should, well, make them educated. Unfortunately, I don’t think that simply preparing students to work will get the job done.

Peter Dunn 2014/08/26 at 6:06 am

“I recently met with Dr. Robert Jackson.”

It is incorret to state I recently ‘met with’ – its just “I recently met Dr. Robert Jackson”.

The ‘with’ is not required and considered poor grammar.

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