By Laura LaVacca
Grammar. A word that makes students cringe. The English language is so complex that once a rule is learned, there’s quickly a rule that undoes it. The approach to grammar and writing should be more about giving students tools rather rules that are often confusing or, worse yet, boring.
Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools” strives to do just that. A key text for any freshman to reference, Clark breaks down grammar into digestible “tools” — 50 to be exact.
On the most basic level, students should be aware of punctuation and how it affects the pace and rhythm of one’s own writing. The various punctuation marks are confusing but Clark likens them to the flow of traffic. A period is a stop sign; a semi-colon is a speed bump; a dash is a branch in the road.
Grammar do’s include varying the use of punctuation to show control but also to ensure the reader reads your writing the way you intended them to. A period is more of a dramatic pause than a comma would be, for example. Punctuation don’ts include excessive exclamation points, especially in serious pieces like academic research papers. Also, using more than one exclamation point or question mark, perhaps as students are used to doing in text messaging for emphasis, has no place in academic writing. One punctuation mark is sufficient.
Text writing is just that — artless, abbreviated and reserved for these casual technological exchanges. Understanding audience and the type of piece should be acknowledged first. In correct writing, lowercase i’s do not exist nor do lowercase letters beginning sentences. Avoid “LOL” or smiley faces. These are faux pas that professors certainly don’t want to see.
Another helpful tip from Clark includes being mindful of verb choice. Often, students write passively with their verbs coming first and subjects second. Clark urges, “Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.”
Start with the subject of your sentence and let him do the action. Be forceful and assertive. These are your sentences; this is your story. Get rid of weak adverbs or modifiers like “sort of” or “kind of.” These do not enhance the verb nor enrich your sentences. Good writing is concise and to the point.
Enhance writing by “seeking original images,” says Tool #8 in “Writing Tools.” Simply put, avoid clichés. The very definition has the word “over-used” in it. These cheapen writing and are unoriginal. Strive for original plays on words. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” writes George Orwell.
With a similar approachable tone, the Grammar Girl of QuickandDirtyTips.com, offers up some equally helpful grammar advice. Mignon Fogerty, author of “101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time,” breaks down her website into approachable grammar rules and topics. These range from ending a word with a preposition to using quotation marks correctly. This is a website every college freshman should have bookmarked.
Other common grammar area to be mindful of are indefinite pronouns. Understand that some are plural and some are singular. Don’t shift them halfway through an essay. Using “one” is a neutral pronoun that is often used in college writing. It doesn’t cause confusion and is certainly more sophisticated than “you.” Reserve the second person for letters, emails, texts — when you really are talking to that specific reader.
Understand that it’s and its are two different words with very different agendas. The former being a contraction for “it is” and the latter showing possession. There’s no such word as its’. Other homophone errors include to/too, their/they’re/there and new/knew.
The apostrophe, therefore, is used in two different ways — one being contractions and the other being possession. Leaving an apostrophe off a word indicates pluralization and changes the meaning of the sentence entirely, often resulting in nonsense. Take the sentence: “The teacher’s students were passionate about grammar.” The students belong to the teacher, as indicated by the apostrophe. Remove the apostrophe and suddenly there’s more than one teacher in the sentence and the meaning is unclear.
Small errors lead to big problems — unclear meaning, incorrect sentences and loss of points.
The list of grammar do’s and don’ts is extensive. Get down to the basics. Understand why it matters. Hit up your college’s Writing Center and any free workshops if you’re struggling. Good grammar helps far beyond the college years when you’re in a career setting, sending mass emails to colleagues or when applying for a job and fixing up your resume. Knowing how to write and write well matters, inside and outside the classroom.