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Grammar is not an IQ score

COMMA PLACEMENT ISN’T COMMON SENSE

Illustration // Madalyn Drewno

Prescriptivist grammarians do more than bolster the ranks of Facebook’s most annoying commenters—we get it, you think you’re smarter than everyone else—they might also lessen the quality of someone’s education.

The proliferation of grammar nazism as a signpost of intelligence is getting in the way of true knowledge accumulation. When a student comes away from a peer review with nothing more than a few added commas, he didn’t actually learn anything. When a TA gives someone a failing grade because of a handful of mechanical errors, she definitely didn’t teach anything. Using grammar as a litmus for successful writing is a failed practice and must be challenged.

Grammar is, at its root, a way to organize language into meaning. If the meaning of a sentence is understood despite having used “affect” instead of “effect,” then grammar’s primary function has been met. Choosing to focus a sight an error teaches people to give inordinate attention to the most superficial aspects of their writing rather than more complicated concepts like organization, analysis, and argumentation. At best, grammar-driven grading will teach students that the quality and content of their ideas don’t matter as much as their ability to memorize a list of irregular verb rules. At its worst, it might inspire fear whenever someone sits down at a keyboard to begin a paper. To take language—a tool that helps people build connections with the world around them—and make it into something to dread is to strip people of something vital.

This kind of pedagogy also disproportionately affects already vulnerable communities within the university. First generation college students and English language learners might already be putting in more time and tutoring hours into their written assignments than their peers, only to be failed for grammar mechanics. If the requirements of a paper are being met on the levels of idea generation and comprehension, more effort should be put into evaluating them across multiple levels and giving credit where credit’s due.

Despite the fact that some people really do live to correct someone’s grammar on social media, much of what occurs in the classroom isn’t malicious or even intentional. Some instructors were never formally taught how to objectively grade a paper’s structure and rhetorical effect, so when they sit down to evaluate a piece of writing, they latch onto superficial errors that are easy to catch and therefore teach.

It’s not as if grammar has no place on a grading rubric. For better or worse, issues like subject-verb disagreement are always going to have negative societal connotations, and it’s better to teach those concepts in the low-stakes environment of the classroom than to let the student graduate without the skills necessary to write their way into a job.

However, like every other requirement, there should be a limit to how much it can decrease a grade. A 10 percent reduction is significant enough to inspire future grammar development without being so punitive that it renders all other efforts put into a paper meaningless. Meanwhile, there’s 90 percent of a paper left to critique, expand on, and improve—all for the sake of actually improving written dexterity.

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