Thursday, January 29, 2015

Grammatical Perceptions

by Kamilah Cummings

In my research for a grammar workshop that I am developing, I read an article titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” It was written for the Harvard Business Review by Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit. He proudly proclaims that he mandates grammar tests for all potential employees and tosses applications from people with “bad” grammar, regardless of the position.  Wiens argues that bad grammar, such as incorrect comma usage and the inability to distinguish between to and too, reflects poor attention to detail, laziness, and a steep learning curve (Wiens)In a NY Times op-ed response to Wiens’ article, esteemed linguist and professor John McWhorter, wrote “There is an extent to which scornful condemnation of “bad grammar” is one of today’s last permissible expressions of elitism” (McWhorter). As colleges increasingly move toward career preparation, faculty cannot ignore that these perceptions of grammar exist in the workplace. However, as faculty we must also acknowledge that they exist within academia as well. To prepare college students for employment, we must approach grammar as a skill that they can develop and refine without judging them for lacking it. 

To the consternation of college faculty, an increasing number of college students lack what we believe are “college-level” grammar skills. Although “good” grammar is a required element of effective academic writing, it is not essential for many careers. Thus, we see adult learners in our classrooms who might have established successful careers without “good” grammar skills. Additionally, multiple factors have resulted in an ever-decreasing emphasis on grammar in schools and society. With this being the case, we still judge people on their “good” and “bad” grammar. “We cannot help associating “bad” grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement” (McWhorter). Wiens states, “I have a “zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid” (Wiens).

I have certainly been guilty of making my own judgments about grammar. My mother was a grammar queen, making sure my siblings and I were grammatically correct at all times. In addition to home instruction, I attended a grade school where we had amazing language arts classes and teachers. However, I know that this was not and is not everyone’s experience. As I provide feedback on student writing, I know that I must consciously acknowledge and assess my own attitudes regarding grammar so that I do not make students feel “stupid” or imply that they are “lazy” or “unrefined” for not knowing grammar that they might not have ever been taught or been required to use in the last 20 years.

Author Wes Moore recently stated that the three main reasons students leave college in their first year are finances, academic preparedness, and feeling unwelcomed. I think that in some cases faculty perceptions tied to grammar might link the two latter reasons. For example, I have a student who previously confessed to me that writing is her “biggest challenge.” Despite holding a senior-level position at a major organization, she said that she has avoided writing at work because she is so insecure about her writing. She said that she is currently taking a writing course with me because she appreciated that my prior writing feedback (in a non-writing course) did not make her feel stupid. She said that she had actually considered dropping out in a previous term because her writing feedback made her feel as if something was wrong with her for not knowing certain things.

After reading her work, my assessment was that she is actually a good writer. She has no problem with generating ideas, supporting her ideas, or thinking critically. She does, however, have some issues with grammar and sentence structure that I think can be easily addressed. As Michelle Navarre Cleary offers in the article, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” “Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct’” (Cleary).

Further dispelling the myth that grammar and ability are linked, research has shown that students who lack “good” grammar can improve grammar through writing without requiring as much formal grammar instruction as one might think. “We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons that students immediately apply to their own writing . . .” (Cleary)This has certainly been the case with my student whose revisions demonstrate her ability to apply what she is learning to improve her grammar. College classrooms present the perfect opportunity for students to write to get it, well, right. As faculty, we have to be more aware of our own perceptions of grammar and how they translate into the feedback that we give students.

I admit that I still cringe when I see grammatical errors (including my own) in professional and personal written communication. However, I think that by removing expectations and judgments about students based on grammar, faculty can help students improve grammar in a way that encourages their assets rather than focuses on their deficits. We want to instruct and improve rather than interrogate and vilify students who lack the grammar skills we expect them to have by the time they enter college.  I compare it to the gym. The gym isn’t a place where only fit people go to maintain their well-toned bodies. It is also a place for people who want to develop well-toned bodies. Likewise, the college classroom should not be a place only for people with “good” grammar. It should be a place for people who want to improve their “bad” grammar as well.

Works Cited

Cleary, Michelle Navarre. The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar. 25 February 2014. 1 December 2014 <>.
McWhorter, John. Good Applicants with Bad Grammar. 13 August 2012. 27 January 2015 <>.

Wiens, Kyle. I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. July 20 2012. 27 January 2015 <>.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this important article. I'm a fervent believer in high standards for college student writing.