At the beginning of each semester, I ask students in my college writing courses to reflect on their previous experiences with reading and writing. Some students write that they learned to love reading through favorite books or a family member’s stories. Others explain that teachers helped them develop a positive attitude about writing or language. However, many of my students describe negative experiences with writing in school. They begin college believing that they aren’t “good” writers. When I ask students to describe their experiences with writing, one of the most common reasons that they give for not having confidence in their work as writers is that they are “bad at” (or at least not good at) grammar.
None of my students are bad at grammar or writing. You aren’t bad at grammar. Before coming to college, you learned how to use your native language(s) in complex and interesting ways. You probably know a lot more about grammar than you think you know. You might use language in ways that are different from what some high school teachers or college professors expect, but that doesn’t mean that something is wrong with the way that you use language. You might need to learn how to adapt language to different courses and writing situations in college. You might speak a variety of English at home that is different from what you learned about English in school. English might not be your first or second or third language. But you are not bad at grammar.
This article provides an overview of basic concepts for understanding different perspectives on grammar and explains how the social rules for using written language change based on the audience and purpose of a writing situation. It also describes strategies for learning about how language works through practice, using your own college writing projects.
- What are your personal perspectives and beliefs about grammar?
- What experiences in your life shaped your thinking about grammar and how written language works?
Understanding different ways to define grammar can be a helpful starting point for exploring what you already know about how language works. Grammar is a term for describing the structure of a language. Grammar is a complex concept that has more than one meaning. Here are three of the most frequently used definitions for grammar:
These three concepts aren’t the only definitions for grammar, but they are the most common. Writing studies expert Laura Micciche suggests that these various definitions for grammar describe different mental activities:
Often grammar is used in a way that assumes we all understand and agree upon its meaning—and, in fact, grammar referred to loosely seems to signify traditional “school grammar” and its focus on repetitive, decontextualized, drill-and-kill exercises. However, grammar has a range of referents (i.e., prescriptive, descriptive, rhetorical) that describe very different kinds of intellectual activities, differences that matter tremendously. (715)
Typically when my college writing students say that they are “bad at” grammar, what they really mean is that they haven’t mastered what Micciche calls “school grammar.” They are still working on learning about how language works and developing strategies for applying what they already know to their own writing. They haven’t yet learned the vocabulary for studying and talking about the structure of the English language at an advanced level. They also don’t know some of the rules for using grammar that some professors expect for formal college writing situations. However, not knowing school grammar is completely different from not knowing how language works. An incomplete understanding of school grammar doesn’t make you bad at grammar or bad at writing. You know how to use grammar for everyday purposes even if you don’t feel confident about school grammar. You can be a college-level writer and use writing in complex and interesting ways even if you are still learning about the structure of language and how written words work together to create meaning for readers.
- What did you learn about grammar in your previous educational experiences?
- How have your experiences with “school grammar” influenced your thinking about successful writing and what it means to be a good writer?
- How have your experiences with grammar in school influenced your thinking about yourself as a writer?
Usage is another term for the third type of grammar―or social rules about language correctness. Usage refers to the ways in which members of a language community use language for particular situations and purposes. When my students tell me that they need help with grammar or with fixing mistakes, they are usually referring to English usage. They want to figure out how to follow stated or unstated rules about correct ways of using language.
English usage includes
- socially accepted ways of using words and phrases,
- the meanings of words in particular situations (contexts),
- conventions (rules) about language correctness,
- the ways that people actually use language (which may be different from how some people think that language should be used),
- constantly changing social rules about how language should (and shouldn’t) be used.
Writer and dictionary editor Ammon Shea explains the difference between patterns of language (the first type of grammar) and usage (social rules): “Grammar refers to the manner in which the language functions, the ways that the blocks of speech and writing are put together. Usage refers to using specific words in a manner that will be thought of as either acceptable or unacceptable” (xiii-xiv). Usage rules are socially constructed, which means that people develop ideas about socially acceptable ways of using language over time within communities of language users. The social rules for writing are different from the rules for speech, and different communities (including academic fields of study) have their own usage rules. Because people invented usage rules, people can also change, break, or ignore them.
College students need to know how to adapt social rules for using English to different types of writing and courses. Some usage guidelines for college writers are general, which means that you can apply them to different courses. The following are examples of general usage rules for college writing:
The student asked, “How is usage different from the structure of language?”
I quickly wrote the essay. [active voice]
My essay was written quickly. [passive voice]
Use a semicolon to show relationships; it helps join ideas together.
Salt Lake Community College (SLCC)
The tutor who helps me in the writing center
Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation
Our class discussed library research, online sources, and evidence. [parallel]
Our class discussed researching in the library, online sources, and how to use evidence. [not parallel]
These rules are examples of usage conventions (social rules) for college writing that help writers communicate with readers in a clear and consistent way. However, native speakers of English don’t necessarily know about them or follow them consistently. Some professors might expect you to follow one or more of these usage guidelines, but others won’t. If you know some of these rules, you probably learned them in school―not through your everyday use of language.
Other usage guidelines for academic writing depend on the situation. The social rules for using language in school vary for different fields of study, types of writing, levels of higher education, and cultural groups. For example, usage rules for writing in psychology, nursing, education, and other fields in the United States follow the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines, which include rules for citing sources and making choices about usage and writing style. In humanities courses, students typically need to follow usage rules from the Modern Language Association (MLA). These types of guidelines for academic language are easy to identify because they are available in writing handbooks and on websites for college writers. However, they aren’t easy to follow or use in writing. These specialized guidelines are very different from the social rules for using language that you use outside of school, and they are probably more complicated than the usage rules you learned in high school. They require ongoing practice. You will learn about and use social rules for using language for academic purposes slowly over time as you take courses in your chosen areas of study.
Not knowing or not following usage rules for college writing doesn’t make you a bad writer or bad at grammar. It might just mean that a teacher expects you to use language in a way that you haven’t learned or practiced yet. Sometimes an instructor even has unreasonable expectations for what college students can and should know about language before enrolling in college. You won’t always be able to adapt to an instructor’s expectations for using language, but you can learn how to make effective language choices as you gain experience through completing college-level writing tasks and responding to feedback from instructors and other readers. In your work as a college student, you might also purposefully make choices as a writer that are different from social expectations for academic writing.
- What did you learn about usage in your previous educational experiences that you can apply to your work as a college writer
- In your experiences as a college student, what have you noticed about the social rules for using written language?
- For the courses that you are taking, how do the rules for using written language change depending on the course and the assignment?
Some college students think about grammar from the perspective of mistakes and errors because that’s what they remember most from their previous experiences with learning about language. Their experiences in school or in their communities suggest that there are correct and incorrect ways of speaking or writing. Some people believe that there are right and wrong ways of using language. This type of thinking is called prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive approaches to grammar focus on rules about how people think that speakers of a language should use it. Richard Nordquist gives this definition: “The term prescriptive grammar refers to a set of norms or rules governing how a language should (or should not) be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is actually used” (“Prescriptive Grammar”). Thinking about grammar in a prescriptive way can limit how college writers view their own language choices. Students who believe that they always have to approach grammar from a perspective of correctness or avoiding mistakes sometimes have an incomplete understanding of how language and writing work.
In contrast, descriptive grammar is the study of how native speakers use language in their everyday lives. Nordquist explains this approach to grammar: “The term descriptive grammar refers to an objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language. It’s an examination of how a language is actually being used, in writing and in speech. Linguists who specialize in descriptive grammar examine the principles and patterns that underlie the use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences” (“Descriptive Grammar”). This approach to thinking about grammar is more useful for college writing than a prescriptive approach. As a college writer, you need to move away from thinking about right and wrong ways of using language. Instead, you need to adapt how you use language to different situations both inside and outside of school. You also need to explore different ways of using language to express ideas in your own writing.
Correctness in academic writing typically means using language that meets a reader’s expectations and needs for a particular communication situation. It doesn’t mean that there’s a good or a bad way to use grammar. Sometimes students notice significant differences between social expectations for formal edited college writing and how most people actually use language in their everyday lives and in less formal types of academic writing. Experienced college writers often follow usage rules for academic writing while ignoring those same rules in informal writing. For example, most professors expect students to use complete sentences in essays, and students typically try to use that rule when writing for college courses. However, practically no one writes in complete sentences all of the time. People frequently use incomplete sentences in writing for non-academic purposes and in some academic situations (for example, in responding to short answer test questions).
In some situations, not following a usage rule for academic writing can be the most appropriate choice for a non-academic situation. For instance, writing a series of complete sentences in a reply to a text message might annoy a reader who expects a short yes or no answer. Further, breaking rules for formal writing can also be a deliberate choice that a writer makes. Some experienced writers purposefully decide to use sentence fragments (incomplete sentences) for emphasis even in formal writing. Writing incomplete sentences isn’t wrong, but sometimes it’s not the best choice for a particular writing situation.
Some people have beliefs about language correctness that don’t reflect how people actually use language. Students sometimes learn usage rules that experienced and professional writers regularly ignore. Here are three examples:
People share these beliefs and teach them to others because they believe that they represent a correct or right way to write. However, these ideas about language don’t reflect how experienced writers actually use language. I regularly ignore all three of these grammar ideas and others like them in my own writing.
- What are some additional examples of beliefs about language correctness that people regularly ignore?
- Are there any usage rules that you sometimes ignore in your own writing? If so, why?
- How can an understanding of the social nature of grammar and usage help you develop as a college writer?
As you become more experienced with college writing, you will increasingly develop an awareness of how to make choices about how to use language based on the audience for a text, type of writing, and your purpose as a writer. The following strategies can help college writers learn more about how language works through their own writing.
Exploring new approaches to using language through practicing with your own writing will help you (a) become a more advanced writer and (b) learn how to adapt your writing to different types of writing situations. You will become more confident in the choices that you make as a writer as you explore strategies for using language based on your own interests and writing goals.
- What strategies have you used in the past for exploring how language works through your own writing?
- What would you like to learn about grammar, usage, and/or punctuation in your college writing courses? How might you explore those language issues through your own writing in the courses that you are currently taking?
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 7th ed., American Psychological Association, 2019.
Lee, Chelsea. “Welcome, Singular ‘They.’” APA Style Blog, 31 October 2019. https://apastyle.apa.org/blog/singular-they.
Micciche, Laura. “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no. 4, June 2004, pp. 716–737.
Modern Language Association. MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association, 2016.
Nordquist, Richard. “Definition and Examples of Prescriptive Grammar.” ThoughtCo, 24 June 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/prescriptive-grammar-1691668.
—. “What Is Descriptive Grammar?” ThoughtCo, 20 Sept. 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-descriptive-grammar-1690439.
Shea, Ammon. Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Penguin, 2014.
Resources for Further Study
Lane Greene, Robert. Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language. Profile Books, 2018.
—. You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity. Delacorte, 2011.
McCulloch, Gretchen. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Penguin, 2019.