For many instructors much of the time spent responding to student writing isn't really "responding" at all; it is "editing." Faced with verb tense errors, missing "ed" endings, run-on sentences and the whole panoply of grammatical errors, instructors instinctively reach for the red pen and correct, correct, correct.
Laudable as these efforts are, the research on the efficacy of grammar instruction is notoriously mixed. Even worse for those of us holding the line against the misuse of the apostrophe s, the research is pretty clear on the efficacy of correcting student errors--those corrections have little effect on students overcoming those errors. Sigh.
So what is a conscientious teacher supposed to do?
Error and "Error"
First, it is important to distinguish between different kinds of error. Joseph Williams distinguishes between three kinds of rules: inviolable, optional, and folklore.
Inviolable rules are those that define the fundamental structure of English. These rules define the language and are the only ones that can be called grammatical rules. Violating these rules marks a writer as careless if not illiterate. Leaving the "s" off of a third person singular regular verb is an error of this kind.
Optional rules are points of usage that we may choose to observe or not depending upon the rhetorical situation. Optional rules often govern areas where the language is undergoing change, such as whether one should use the pronoun "one" or whether one should use "whom" as the object of a verb or preposition. (One should, though, if one does so among friends one is likely to suffer ridicule.)
Folklore refers to "rules" that are not rules at all. Much of The King's English, The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, and many, many other usage guides consist of what Williams calls folklore. Examples of folklore range from the seemingly grammatical requirement to use "that" not "which" with restrictive clauses (pure convention not grammar) to the completely arbitrary rule to use a comma before the last item in a list. Or is the rule that one should not use a comma before the last item in a list? Simply because a "rule" might be folklore doesn't mean the "rule" doesn't have considerable power. The split infinitive might be pure folklore, a mere chimera of a "rule," but as every writer knows one splits at one's risk.
So the instructor needs to distinguish between errors and "errors" and decide where to focus the student's attention. Distinguishing between these different types of "rules" also helps highlight the most important aspect of correctness: it is a choice, like so many other choices, made by the writer to achieve specific purposes. These choices, however, must be made with due attention to the needs of the audience and the conventions of the form. To ignore either or both is to court failure.
A Hierarchy of Error
When dealing with "real" error, most instructors also observe a hierarchy of error--some errors are simply more significant than others. Written into many writing assessment rubrics are the distinctions between "serious" and "frequent" and between "distracting" and "confusing." A serious error is one that leads to confusion for the reader. These errors are almost always syntactic--sentence boundary problems, word order, and so forth. They might not be frequent, but when they occur they create significant problems for the reader. Frequent minor errors are really more distracting than confusing. If a writer misuses articles or has problems with verb form most readers won't be confused by the error. If these errors occur frequently, the reader might become distracted by them, a state of mind not far removed from confusion.
Central to this entire discussion of error is the role of the reader. Correctness (and its partner in style, clarity) goes to the writer's ethos. (Click here to view John Edlund's discussion of ethos, logos, and pathos.) Ethos is the term used by Aristotle to refer to the speaker's character as it appears to the audience. The more we like, trust, and admire the speaker, the more likely we are to believe what the speaker says. Furthermore, the more we believe in the speaker's expertise and knowledge, the more likely we are to be persuaded by the speaker. Error weakens the writer's ethos. To some readers error signals carelessness. To others it signals incompetence. To some it might even signal disrespect. In short, correctness is not simply about following seemingly arbitrary rules, or learning the secret academic handshake; it is an acknowledgement of the reader's needs.
To Mark or Not to Mark
The question remains, however, what is a conscientious teacher supposed to do? Here's a short list:
Studies have shown that most of the errors in student writing are the same errors over and over again. According to one study twenty errors account for nearly 90% all errors (click here to see the terrible twenty errors). Rather than marking every occurrence of a verb form error, the instructor could simply note problems with verbs. Instead of marking every incorrect "it's" vs. "its," the instructor could note confusion between these two forms and let the student work out the details. Ultimately, the goal is to have the student work out the details.
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