Grammar’s place in school

GRADING Why should scores be decided solely on punctuation?

Grammar’s place in school

This picture shows the importance that some professors and student put on grammar. Photo courtesy of

I like grammar.

I’m not saying I’m a grammar-Nazi, but I enjoy learning about the theories behind modern grammar. Essentially, I like learning about the way we use words and why we use them the way we do.

I find the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar especially fascinating. See, there are two schools of mind when thinking about grammar: you can think about grammar in the terms of how words are supposed to be used — prescriptive grammar — or you can think about grammar in the terms of how words are actually used — descriptive grammar.

The best way to illustrate the differences between the two schools of grammar is to look at a few examples. Consider for a moment the following sentence: “With whom did you go to the movies?” Sounds weird, right? Normally, we would say “Who did you go to the movies with?” Well, believe it or not, the grammatically correct sentence is the first one. The second is incorrect. This is the perfect example of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. We are used to using the incorrect version of the sentence, and the correct version of the sentence feels incorrect, even jarring.

There are many teachers who, after seeing a certain number of grammatical errors, will dock a large amount of points from the final grade of a paper. I’ve had them as a student, and it is hard to express the amount of anxiety these kinds of grading policies give me. Which school of grammar do I use? What is the teacher’s policy on commas — a punctuation notorious for not following rules? I could ask these questions, but often when writing a paper, I’m more worried about structuring my argument and backing up my claims with reliable evidence.

My proofreading is limited to my final draft. Don’t get me wrong, I usually catch the obvious, such as typing ‘fro’ instead of ‘for’, but what about the Oxford or serial comma? It’s required in MLA and APA, but not in AP. If the teacher doesn’t specify what style, what should the student do? Or, even worse, what if the teacher incorrectly subscribes to the idea that the Oxford comma is actually grammatically wrong?

These are all hypothetical situations, but that’s what runs through my mind every time I see a prompt that tells me my grade will significantly drop with every grammatical error.

I understand the reasoning behind this. I’m sure there is nothing more frustrating that receiving a ten page paper that the student clearly didn’t take the time to proofread. I also understand that grammar mistakes can profoundly affect the readability of a paper. I am not arguing that we scrap grammar all together.

However, I am arguing that we should start scrapping grading based on prescriptive grammar. These policies do nothing for the student or the teacher. If anything, they add to the stress that both student and teacher are under during the school year.

Don’t you think teachers might find this grading policy hard? Say you have a paper that is worthy of an A. The student thought the assignment out well, made a solid argument and went above and beyond the requirements. But, upon further review, you find that the student made six grammatical errors. The mistakes are minor, you wouldn’t have noticed them if you hadn’t been specifically looking for them. However, per your policy, you give the paper a zero after finding more than five errors.

Is this fair? Well, it depends on how you view assignments, and school in general. If class is a place for gaining knowledge and papers are place for applying that knowledge, then grading on grammar becomes no more than a way to reach a quota for failing grades.

If you treat assignments as hoops to jump through, then it makes complete sense to grade on grammar. However, if you look at assignments as hoops in the larger bureaucracy that is school, then I would argue your issues go far deeper than simply failing a student due to prescriptive grammar mistakes.

The issue is not black and white. Grammar is important. There is a reason I — and I’d be willing to bet you do as well — sneer at facebook posts that use the wrong form of “you’re,” and I absolutely agree that a paper that is unreadable should not receive a passing grade.

However, just as I agree that grammar isn’t black and white, I don’t think grading on it should be either. There is always a bigger picture and a larger context.

For that reason, we should be grading on readability, not grammar alone.

Kjerstine Trooien is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].