When people find out I teach English, by far one of their most common concerns they ask me about is how to teach their children grammar. It comes up again and again in conversations both online and in person, and I understand why there is so much anxiety around this topic. After all, many adults don’t feel they have a clear and consistent grasp of grammar rules, and they don’t feel confident that they can explain them correctly or thoroughly as part of their instruction.
There is No “Proper” Grammar
First thing’s first. There’s no such thing as “proper” grammar. Grammar is situational, and it is developed organically through language usage throughout our lives. If your grammar allows you to effectively communicate with your intended audience, it is “proper.”
That said, there is such a thing as Standard Academic English (SAE), a language that no one speaks naturally but that some people’s homegrown grammar is closer to simply because they speak most like the people who made up these arbitrary rules to begin with. Learning SAE and applying it consistently in your writing does (rightly or wrongly) unlock doors in the future. If you can put all of your commas in the right place and never mix up a “to” for a “too,” you are much more likely to get that job interview, impress that scholarship committee, and otherwise achieve your goals.
But that’s not what this post is about. While learning the ins and outs of SAE is a worthwhile goal, it’s a detail-oriented endeavor akin to doing the finishing touch-ups when painting a room. And today we’re talking about a much earlier stage in the writing process.
Focus is Key
If you have a student who is early in their composition process, you don’t want to nitpick grammar and punctuation rules. It can be frustrating and make them hyperfocus on tiny decisions instead of putting their focus on larger, more important writing choices.
There are, however, some grammar and punctuation issues that are important to address early and often. These particular errors go beyond surface-level mistakes and suggest a deeper issue with competently managing the way that information is processed and presented.
3 Rules That Really Matter
If you are grading your learner’s papers or trying to decide which grammar and punctuation rules to directly instruct first, here are the three that matter most.
1. Sentence Fragments
What they are- Sentence fragments are dependent clauses that stand alone as if they are independent clauses. Put simply, sentence fragments are bits of sentences that are missing something important. In order to be a sentence, the clause must contain a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. If one of those elements is missing, it is not a sentence, and it cannot stand alone.
Why it matters- Writers who inadvertently use sentence fragments are usually having trouble seeing the connections between thoughts. This goes deeper than simply not knowing where to put punctuation. Fragments suggest a lack of clarity when it comes to who is doing what action, and it can lead to confusion for both reader and writer.
2. Run-Ons and Comma Splices
What they are– While technically two different errors, these can be taught together because they are so similar. A run-on occurs when two complete sentences (independent clauses) are presented together with no punctuation between them. A comma splice occurs when two complete sentences are presented together with only a comma between them. Both are incorrect, and both suggest the same flaw in the thinking that led to their creation.
Why it matters– Smashing sentences together without adequately considering how to join them suggests a writer who is moving too quickly. Making a choice about whether the best punctuation would be a full stop (with a period), a slight pause (with a semicolon), or some other combining feature (like a conjunction) lets the writer fully consider how ideas are connected to one another and what experience the reader should have to fully comprehend that connection. Creating a run-on or comma splice instead of making one of these choices suggests a kind of rushed approach that should be slowed down to ensure full consideration.
3. Unclear Pronoun Usage
What it is- A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (him, her, they, it, etc.). Pronoun usage is important because it avoids repetition and gives the writer more options for how to fluidly write ideas. However, when there is no clear antecedent for a pronoun, it can be confusing for the reader. Every time a pronoun is used, the reference needs to be clear.
Why it matters- Sometimes writers use pronouns when they are feeling overwhelmed by their own ideas. Most commonly, writers use “this” or “it” when they are unsure of how to summarize the point they just made, and the inability to clearly summarize the point they just made could mean that they do not fully grasp what they are suggesting. Pointing out the use of these vague pronouns can help writers focus on what they are trying to say more fully and to rewrite it in a clearer way. Having to do this rewriting not only makes it easier for the reader to understand, but it also ensures that the writer is making the intended point in the first place.
3 Rules to Save for Later
When you’re evaluating a piece of writing, it can be tempting to start marking every error in order to be thorough and clear. However, if the writer has bigger issues to tackle (organization, supporting details, a clearer thesis, etc.) or has more serious grammar and punctuation errors (like the three listed above), these three errors can wait until the final polishing stage. It’s important not to overwhelm writers with too much to do at once.
1. Comma Placement (Beyond Comma Splices)
What it is- As mentioned above, it’s really important that writers learn what a comma splice is and how to avoid it, but there are lots of other commas in the world, and they can be confusing. For instance, there are commas that come after introductory phrases (like the one in this sentence). There are also commas that come before coordinating conjunctions, and they can be tricky (like the one in this sentence). There are commas that appear in serial lists, between the names of cities and states, and between the names of days and months. Learning all of these different comma rules can be somewhat overwhelming, but it’s really just a matter of memorization and not deeper content-level understanding.
Why you can wait- Missing a comma (or sticking one in where it doesn’t belong) usually doesn’t make a sentence incomprehensible. Typically, the reader can still figure out the meaning, and the writer is usually still able to understand the point and how it connects to the other ideas. This is a detail-oriented error, not a comprehension one. Save it for later in the writing process.
2. Homophone Confusion
What it is– There are lots of words that sound the same and are spelled differently. You’re and your are frequently mixed up. Their, there, and they’re are also culprits. Its and it’s have been the source of much spilled red ink.
Why you can wait– Sure, these homophone confusions are annoying for the reader. They can be jarring, and they are definitely errors you want to fix before you send off anything important like a cover letter or a scholarship application. However, they don’t represent a fundamental issue with comprehension, and making a developing writer self-conscious about them can stunt writing progress. If every time a writer has to use a homophone (and that’s often because there are a lot of them) they have to stop the flow of ideas to try to remember which one to use, they can end up losing their best thoughts and feeling frustrated with their progress.
3. Ending a Sentence with a Preposition, Splitting Infinitives, Not Using Conjunctions, and Most Other “Proper” Rules
What they are– English has a lot of conventions that don’t have much to do with comprehension. These are rules that are all about the order and flow of the sentences, and many of them are outdated and rooted in conventions that we don’t even remember or that aren’t appropriate to our particular writing situations.
Why you can wait- While learning these formal conventions is nice (just like having formal wear in the closet is nice), we don’t need to use them every day (just like that ball gown isn’t a great choice for most of our daily encounters). Let writers write in a way that is comfortable and natural as they develop. There’s plenty of time to get dressed up in stuffy clothes later.
BONUS: The Singular “They”
One quick word on another common grammar “correction”: the singular “they.”
What it is- English doesn’t have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. If I am talking about a situation in which the subject is unknown or non-binary, I don’t have an appropriate English pronoun to use. It leads to awkward sentences that contain his or her or he or she or one. They sound unnatural, clunky, and distracting. In addition, they don’t allow for the fact that some people identify as neither he nor she and could therefore still be inaccurate.
While the singular “they” has frequently been marked as incorrect in most style guides, it has gained widespread acceptance in recent years. It has been adopted into mainstream style guides (including that of the Washington Post) and was even awarded Word of the Year back in 2016. I’m personally a fan both for its stylistic impact and its inclusivity. In fact, I used it in this post.
My advice is to make burgeoning writers aware of this shift in stylistic attitudes. While they may still encounter some instructors who have a preference for older conventions, demonstrating this changing rule gives them more writing flexibility and a hands-on understanding of the ways that language changes.