Talk Grammar to Me Tuesday: Grammar, Self-Care, and Sam Smith

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s noon on Tuesday.  You completed a marathon grading session which started at 4:00 AM on Monday and ended at 1:00 AM Tuesday, taught class, had office hours, and are so tired that you’re considering napping on your desk even though it would mean students working in the writing lab could see you sleeping through your big aquarium-like window and make memes with pictures of you drooling into your own hair for their own amusement.  But. You. Just. Don’t. Care.  You would welcome the ridicule, even, if it meant you could sleep for just an hour or so. Your eyes aren’t focusing so well, and your wrists have red lines on the undersides from resting/rubbing against the edge of the keyboard as you’ve typed for so many hours. So many. You are wondering if it would be too much of a stretch to compare yourself to Bob Cratchit or Sisyphus

Image result for sisyphus

You would like nothing more than to go home, sleep for a few hours, and then work on this blog post that you should have written days ago. However, construction at your house means limited internet so this isn’t really an option.  What do you do?

You scrounge in the bottom of your computer bag for some spare change, hit the vending machine for some Zingers which at 53g of sugar per serving should do something to help keep you awake, find your “Classical for Focus” playlist,  google a grammar phrase which even as you write it seems highly unlikely to go anywhere “famous people bad grammar” promise yourself you aren’t going to put off grading like this again (which we all know is a lie), start typing random ideas that you hope will serve to prove a clearer point somewhere along the line, and wait for the sugar to kick in. (Sidebar, it took one hour and 16 minutes.)

While the details of your story may be different from mine, it’s pretty likely that by this point of the semester, you’ve been here.  Let’s not kid ourselves. Spring break was two long weeks ago. Okay, a week and a half.  Summer break is still six and a half weeks away. By this point in the semester, the excitement about a new group of classes has worn off, the illusions of “everything will be different this time” are gone, class rosters have dwindled…and we are all just trying our best to get through it how we can.  The threat of snow has passed (hopefully), but it has been replaced by gray skies and rain. Many of us (on both sides of the desk) are sleep deprived, hungry, and a little cranky from time to time.

We often see the affects of this mid-semester slog when students come to the writing center for help, to make up exams, or to use the technology.  They are less sure of themselves and their abilities.  They are more easily overwhelmed by what their instructors are asking them to do. They are less focused and more easily distracted.

How does this relate to grammar?  After all, it’s Tuesday and that’s what we are supposed to be talking about, right?  Well, because you would not believe how many students in 20 years of teaching and almost 17 of tutoring I have heard say that they were awful writers because…well, because….yes, they make mistakes in grammar. That’s it. Grammar.  Here are some actual quotes:

“I’m a horrible writer. I don’t know how to use commas.”

“My writing sucks. I never really learned how to cite things in MLA.”

“Writing has never been my thing. I use too many commas.”

“I’m more of a math person, I think. My grammar is pretty bad.”

These were all students who genuinely believed they were bad writers because they made grammar or style mistakes, and not just novice writers, or bad writers, but baaaad writers. They all had essays that 1.) had valuable content, and 2.) despite some errors were generally readable. Even students who usually feel better about their writing tend to place an inordinate emphasis on grammar and the correlation between “correct grammar” and “good writing” or “smart student.”  (Sidebar, I was a “smart student” and a “good writer,” but I couldn’t tell you the different parts of speech until I started teaching a class that had them as content knowledge I had to impart on my students.  Also, even several years in, I still make common mistakes–and often don’t catch them until I’ve passed out an assignment sheet or posted a blog entry.)  For many of us, especially while we are students, our grammar is somehow tied up with our personal views of ourselves. (There are several theories about this and if you want to know more, let me know, but that’s not our focus today.)

So, today we are going to look at grammar with the intent of feeling a little bit better about “where we are” with our use of it and with the struggles we might have using it academically/formally.  We’re going to do a little grammar self care.

Remember that song from a few years ago where Sam Smith crooned about how he knew he wasn’t the only one? That’s something we need to remember. Grammar errors are something that everyone commits.  Some of us more than others.  Some of us do a better job proofreading–or we have someone who does a nice job of that for us.  But, everyone makes mistakes. That’s part of being human.  And, as a student, it’s part of learning. Students, though, aren’t the only ones who have problems keeping it all under control, grammar-wise.

In 2013, Grammarly, an online proofreading service, analyzed 100 tweets of the 150 most followed celebrities. Spoiler alert, you won’t find President Trump on the list.  This was evidently before he garnered the following that he does on social media now.  Grammarly found that the top five celebrities with the worst grammar on twitter were:

5. Kendall Jenner (28 errors/ 100 words)

4. Shaq (28.2 errors/ 100 words)

3. Bruno Mars (28.4 errors/ 100 words)

2. Wiz Khalifa (28.9/ errors/100 words)

1. Snoop Dog (30.9/ errors/100 words)

Those with the fewest errors?

5. Gerard Pique (2 errors/100 words)

4. Conan O’Brien (1.7 errors/100 words)

3. Kim Kardashian (1.6 errors/100 words)

2. Kourtney Kardashian (1.6 errors/100 words)

1. Barrack Obama (0.8 errors/ 100 words)

What do you know? Kourtney has claimed to be the smart one all along. Maybe Kendall needs to ask her sisters for some editing help. But, is it really fair to assess people’s language use based on a discourse community where people are expected to write like this?

Image result for twitter horrendous grammar posts

Or this?

Image result for twitter horrendous grammar posts

Or how about this?

Image result for twitter horrendous grammar posts

Sorry. (Not sorry.) Maybe it’s not fair, but it does illustrate that even people who are very successful in a variety of fields aren’t always the best grammarians. And, did they let this hold them back or damage their self esteem? Uh, no.

Some other seemingly random facts I found that should make you feel better about your struggles with grammar are:

Alfred Butts was a horrible speller.  Not that interesting, right? How about Alfred Butts, the inventor of Scrabble–the game where you earn all the points by knowing how to correctly spell words, and even more points for uncommon words that use uncommon letters–was a horrible speller?

Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald from high school Language Arts? Well, Mr. Great Gatsby couldn’t spell the name of one of his closest friends, a Mr. Old Man and The Sea, aka Ernest Hemingway.  He preferred to spell it “Hemminway.” Maybe he did this as a joke? Nevertheless, his editor maintains that Fitzgerald struggled with many of the same words you and I do including definate, or it is it definite? (It’s definitely “definite,” but you see what I mean, right?)  Perhaps, Fitzgerald couldn’t spell his friend’s name, but the staff of this newspaper couldn’t spell their own. Time to put that paper to bed.

Here’s a weird fact for you. Do you know what the word “dord” means? Yeah? Neither do I. Actually, no one does, not even Google.  It’s a ghost word.  It first appeared in Merriam and Webster’s dictionary in 1934 as the result of an editing error.  For several years after that (5-7 depending upon which account you read), it was still there on page 771, even though it has no meaning. So, the people who are supposed to know all of the words and how to use them have editing issues like this–for five to seven years–and yet your teacher still gives you the side-eye when they find words in your text you should have edited out, but didn’t catch? Oh-kay.


How about this random fact–did you know that your brain is wired to make you susceptible to making grammar mistakes? It’s true.  Maryellen McDonald, a cognitive psychologist at  UW-Madison studies how our brains process language.  She says that even when we know grammar rules, other forces at work cause us to override what we know and commit errors. For example, she says, when we are typing, we tend to pay particular attention to how a word sounds because often, that’s a clue to how it’s spelled.

We don’t realize this is happening; usually, it’s just part of how our brains use associative grouping when accessing knowledge and language. This is why homophones trip people up.  It’s also why people who speak with an accent, say one that doesn’t make a clear verbal distinction between “are, “our,” and “hour” sometimes find that they’ve used the wrong word in their prose. This also explains why many ESL and SLL students “write with an accent” when they are still acquiring the skills for using English in written form when their oral language skills are more advanced.

Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield states that sometimes it’s habits of mind that get in our way of using correct grammar.  Just as athletes rely on muscle memory to perform physical feats without overthinking them,  our brains work the same way with language.  Over the years, we establish patterns of word usage which are common either in our own writing or from what we read.  So, over time, our brains access these patterns as “rules” without our having to think about how words are put together to make a logical statement.

If you have ever had to learn a second (or third) language where word order is different from your first language, you will understand what he’s talking about.  When you are first learning the language, you have to think about how words are ordered in your new language, but as time goes by and you practice speaking and writing it more, this new pattern becomes second nature.  You don’t have to think about it.  So it was when most of us learned English as a child.  We just don’t remember that experience.

The problem, then, when it comes to correct or incorrect grammar, is that sometimes our brain tries to apply a rule when it shouldn’t.  Think of your email account and your spam folder.  There are rules that your computer uses to analyze content of an incoming message to determine if it is or is not spam. Most of the time, it’s correct.  Sometimes, though, it misapplies a rule and that email from your teacher extending a deadline gets sent to the spam file where you don’t see it until you’ve finished the assignment or that email asking for your banking information so you can collect 2M for helping that prince from the Middle East finds its way to your inbox when it should have gone to the spam file.  Now and then, our brain makes similar slips when trying to apply associative grouping rules.  This is why we occasionally make mistakes in word choice, even though we know what the correct word should be.

Stafford calls these types of errors “high frequency”mistakes.  Most of the time we intend to do one thing, but this one time we need to do something else.  We need our brain to find the exception to the rule.  This is a hard enough task on it’s own, he says, but it is further complicated by the fact that if we are in a rush or are distracted, we are more likely to make a mistake.  Hmmm…rush? Distracted (perhaps by multitasking)? Not me, said no writer or student. Ever. Cognitive researchers have shown that this happens even with unusual words and phrases. If that’s true, then imagine how common it must be for someone to inadvertently type “then” instead of “than” or “to” instead of “too.”

So, to recap, we’ve looked at how making grammar errors is a part of writing and why they tend to happen. It’s a battle we all continue to fight.  And, making mistakes makes us better learners and more successful. Hopefully, we’ve learned to be a little more forgiving of ourselves on this front, to get a little more rest when we can, plan our meals better, and to live up to promises we make about changing non-productive behavior, too. Okay, that last part was mostly me or maybe all me, but hey, what kind of teacher am I if you can’t learn from my example? If you need some help with your grammar or a little encouragement with your writing, you know what to do. Stop in and see us in the writing center.  Okay, sing us home, Sam…






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