Is it bad writing? And is it bad for the reason you think?
Jenny Baranick, author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, is an English professor whose students can’t believe she’s actually that into grammar. She brings us the following guest post, which makes fun while making a point using situations she commonly sees while teaching writing to college students:
Most of my students think they are bad writers — and they are — but not for the reason they think. They think they are bad writers simply because they don’t know where to insert commas and they forget the name of that one punctuation mark that looks like a comma but is “in the sky.” (It’s an APOSTROPHE, people.) And they’re right to think that proper grammar and punctuation are terribly important. But let’s pretend for a moment that they were proficient in grammar — they would still be bad writers. And here’s why: If I assign my students an essay that asks them to choose the three most important inventions in their lives, 90% of the essays I grade will start with this phrase:
If I had to choose three of the most important inventions in my life, I would choose …
In other words, although my students are communicating ideas via the written word, they are not writing.
If they had been writing instead of just typing words on a page, the first sentence of their essay would draw me in by making me laugh or surprising me with a little known fact or presenting a powerful image or a relevant anecdote.
Trite expressions like “in today’s society,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and “last but not least” wouldn’t be sprinkled throughout their work; they would take the time to invent the perfect metaphor to make their point, like this one from author Tom Robbins: “You should never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans.”
I wouldn’t read sentences that started with the words, “The reason why is because” because my students would have fastidiously proofread their draft and cut out superfluous words, so they would be left with “The reason is.”
Instead of using vague descriptions, my students would engage my senses by providing specific details. For example, if a student chose her hair straightener as one of her most important inventions, she wouldn’t tell me she chose it because without it her hair is “a mess”; she’d tell me that without it her hair “frizzes six inches off her head.” If a student chose his iPod, he wouldn’t simply tell me it was important because he likes to listen to music when he’s sad; he would tell me that he listens to Poison’s “Every Rose Has its Thorn” when he and his girlfriend fight.
However, if even the most well-crafted, beautiful piece of written work is riddled with grammatical errors, it’s like wearing a gorgeous $5,000 Prada dress that has deodorant stains in the armpits, mustard stains all over the front of the bodice, and mud on the hemline: no one will be able to get past all the stains to even begin to appreciate its beauty.
Jenny Baranick is an English professor whose students can’t believe she’s actually that into grammar. Upon experiencing the joys of grammar at an early age, raising grammar awareness became Jenny’s raison d’être. By spreading her remarkably user-friendly and hilarious approach to grammar, she hopes everyone will experience the satisfaction of a properly placed comma, a precisely used semicolon, and a correctly deployed en dash. Her blog, Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares has spawned a book by the same name.
About the book: Grammar has finally let its hair down! Unlike uptight grammar books that overwhelm us with every single grammar rule, Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares is like a bikini: it’s fun, flirty, and covers only the most important bits. Its lessons, which are 100 percent free of complicated grammar jargon, have been carefully selected to include today’s most common, noticeable errors — the ones that confuse our readers or make them wonder if we are, in fact, smarter than a fifth grader. What is the proper use of an apostrophe? When should an ellipsis be used instead of an em dash? Why do we capitalize President Obama but not “the president”? And why is that question mark placed outside of the end quote?