Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Note on Grammar to Improve Writing

"Rewriting…is a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless." James Thurber in Cowley, ed., Writers at Work.

Yesterday’s blog reported on yet another research study on teaching grammar to improve writing. It found that those who had been subjected to a consistent course in grammar improved on grammar tests, but not in quality of writing.

 Of course. Writing involves paragraphs, unity, coherence, organization of whole compositions. Grammar deals with the sentence and is noticeable only when the students violate certain obvious conventions in sentence structure, punctuation and usage.

Grammar is only one-fifth of any rating scale, which could include organization, unity, coherence, style and, lastly, grammar. Judging composition means judging whole documents. Only one-fifth of a composition rating involves grammar, again, noticeable when it involves obvious mistakes.

In my judgment, grammar improves the composition as a whole through polishing. In most rating systems of composition, the raters are not looking for polish. The compositions are timed and, as in the 25-minute SAT writing sample, offer very little time for pre-writing or for attention to polish unless the polish is there when the students write it right the first time.

So let’s stop trying to expect a knowledge of grammar to “improve” writing, in which attention to grammar is only one-fifth of the judgment, notable when there are mistakes. Rating compositions deals with the whole composition. Let’s see work with grammar for what it contributes to writing, smoothing, polish of the finished composition  during editing. Most rating systems of composition do not include polishing the prose and raters do not look for it. RayS.

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