Two rules of proper grammar
Eliminate 40% of common grammar mistakes
Using proper grammar in writing becomes important to students
when they start filling out job applications.
If you want your students to meet employers' standards of grammatical
propriety, you must phrase standards so students can decide
whether they applied a particular rule correctly in a specific
sentence in their own writing.
That sounds harder than it is.
By smart application of research
data, you can determine what grammar rules are essential
for writers to know and apply. Using that same research data,
you also can phrase
the rules ways that allow students to determine if they did
or did not apply a rule correctly.
Proper grammar in a nutshell
The first grammar rule student must master for writing is too
basic to be in English texts:
mistake a nonsentence for a sentence.
The second is
A pronoun should refer to and agree
with the noun to the left of it.
Understanding and applying those two rules will eliminate roughly
a quarter of students' grammar mistakes and related punctuation
Errors on essentials
An easy way to define essential
grammar for writing is to use the list of 20 college student
writing mistakes (other than spelling errors) published by Connors
and Lunsford in 1988.
The researchers identified the most common grammar mistakes,
punctuation mistakes, and usage mistakes. Then they ranked those
mistakes in order of frequency. Their list:
You could adopt the 20 grammar and punctuation items from the
Connors and Lunsford list as the rules of proper grammar that
your students must master. (I actually do use it as my reference
list when I'm flagging student errors.)
However, you can simplify your work even more.
Proper grammar concerns sentences
When you examine the Connors and Lunsford list carefully, you
will find some common threads.
Three of the common grammar mistakes are what the English education
people call boundary errors. They are grammar
errors that occur because writers do not know what is a sentence
and what is not a sentence. These boundary errors are
- Using a sentence
fragment as if it were a whole sentence [Connors & Lunsford's
- Running two sentences together within the boundaries
of a single sentence, creating what some teachers call
sentence" or fused sentences [Connors & Lunsford's
- Putting a comma between two sentences instead
of making two separate sentences. This is the infamous comma
splice error [Connors & Lunsford's error #8].
So if you can teach students to tell a sentence from a nonsentence,
three of the 20 most common grammar errors should disappear from
You may not notice right away that avoiding two other errors
on the Connors and Lunsford list also requires understanding what
constitutes a sentence. English texts sometimes call a sentence
a complete thought. That term bewilders students,
who think completeness has something to do with sentence length.
Students who do not recognize a complete sentence are likely
- Fail to put a comma
after an introductory element that precedes the main clause
of a sentence [Connors & Lunsford's error #1].
- Fail to put a comma between independent clauses in
a compound sentence [Connors & Lunsford's error
Three additional errors on the Connors and Lunsford list deal
with pronouns. The three errors are:
- Vague pronoun reference [Connors &
Lunsford's error #2].
- Unnecessary shift in pronoun [Connors &
Lunsford's error #11].
- Lack of agreement of pronoun with antecedent
[Connors & Lunsford's error #16].
A writer zipping along composing a draft can easily make each
of those errors. I make them regularly myself. However, by applying
just one rule, I can catch most of those errors before anyone
If you teach your students the rule governing pronoun reference
and help them learn to apply it to their own work, you will eliminate
another three of the 20 errors from student work. That rule is:
Are you keeping track? Teaching two rules of proper grammar eliminates
40% of common grammar and punctuation errors.
That's not too shabby, is it?
If you're wondering how to get your students to apply even two
rules consistently in their writing, check out individual