Against Grammar

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 “College is a foreign country,” a participant said at a recent writing center colloquium during a round table conversation on social justice in the writing center and in the classroom. What she meant was that college, or the university setting, is foreign to everyone and requires the learning and understanding of a new set of rules. College, and academia more broadly, are a context in which email etiquette is key, syntax is scrutinized, and the oxford comma reigns king.

            Grammar, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it, is “b: a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax.” But who is deciding what is preferred, what is to be avoided, and how are we dictating what is “right” or “wrong,” “correct” or incorrect”?  As professors, instructors, or writing consultants, it is important to impart to students and writers that the way they may talk, write, or speak is not wrong, but may not be aligned with what is expected of them in the academic setting. The line is fine here, but what I describe is a shift in framework, a mindset or an awareness, a communication with students that says: I see you, I am not trying to change you or tell you that how you write or speak is “wrong.” But in this setting, we are expected to write in a different style. Let me show you that style. The difference here is the difference between “you are wrong,” and “this current context is expecting another style of writing from you.”

            Some professors argue that English grammar is inherently colonialist, meaning that it promotes the gaining of “political control over other countries” via language, through erasure, by replacing an individual’s cultural set of practices with another. And while some professors and students may not agree, language, diction, syntax, and grammar all have power, subtle as it may seem, and changing how a person writes or speaks may have lasting effects on how they see themselves, and how they present themselves to the world around them.

While learning proper grammar is certainly important and has its clear benefits (i.e. providing ethos for the writer by communicating clearly and consistently in the style of writers who came before them) it is equally important to communicate with students that the way they talk or write—especially if it deviates from what is preferred, “correct” grammar—is not wrong, but simply may not be what is expected of them in the sphere of academic writing.

            Instead of contributing to or continuing on a path of erasure (sometimes literally erasing, striking out, or annotating papers) what if we re-framed the writing process, de-emphasized grammar (at least in the early stages of the writing process), and let writers continue penning their thoughts, staking space on the stage, before correcting or stunting them in the writing process with the rules of proper grammar? How many more great ideas might we see if we hold off on shutting students down purely on the basis of their grammatical skill? Patrick Bizzaro says, “We must spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write and more time showing them who they can be.” This change can come from a professor’s support, a restraint in correcting every comma, an encouragement of where this student is in their writing process and where they want to go. A new approach to writing, one that de-emphasizes grammar, may result in more missed Oxford commas, and in stronger, more confident writers.


About the Author
Annalise Mabe is currently a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida where she teaches nonfiction and professional writing.