“A checker is a bless sing”?

Remember the spell checker joke? “Eye halve a spelling chequer,” the poem goes. “It came with my pea sea.” Although I read it years ago, I had never really considered the insidious effects of MS Word’s Grammar Checker (MCGC) until reading Amber Buck’s “The Invisible Interface: Word in the Writing Center” and Tim McGee and Patricia Ericsson’s “The politics of the program: MS Word as the invisible grammarian” this week.

While I’m indebted to the spell checker, when I see those green squiggles, I immediately check for the correction and amend it. I can’t help it. But, on those infrequent occasions, I think I know what I’m doing—and the correct change is almost never what the MSGC recommends to me. (As the articles mentioned, its corrections can be as awful as my spelling.) I hadn’t thought of its deleterious effects on less-than-grammar-savvy students who might see the green squiggles covering their black-and-white pages.

Like Cheryl Haynes (who stepped on my toes, to be hideously cliché, by writing the same post as me at the same time), I, too, took issue with how the teaching of grammar is depicted in these articles, as well as many other articles and in some graduate composition classrooms at San Francisco State University. After working on an influx of grammar issues at the Learning Assistance Center last semester, I wondered if the whole class could benefit from some kind of grammar instructor and how to effectively teach it if I did.

By now, most of us have heard that studying grammar does not improve writing skills. In fact, maybe we’ve seen George Hillocks’s (1986) study that proves it:

“The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing….Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) resulted in significant losses in overall quality” (Miller, p. 248).

Yeah, but it’s just as clear that ignoring grammar hasn’t improved the overall quality of students’ writing  either. In “Three Views of Composition,” Nan Miller, a markedly traditional professor at North Carolina State University, wrote, “Teaching grammar in freshman composition shouldn’t be necessary and wouldn’t be necessary if our public school system were doing its job. Most college freshmen need a systematic review of grammar precisely because high school teachers often go by what the NCTE claims ‘research shows’ rather than what they can see with their own eyes.”

Miller cites a 2004 survey of business leaders, called “A Ticket to Work,” in which the National Commission on Writing “found that proficiency in writing was the ‘ticket to professional opportunity’, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death” (p. 20). The survey’s respondents found recent graduates’ grammar “deplorable across the board,” saying “I’m amazed they got through college.”

I see benefit in teaching our students to turn off the Grammar Checker, but I also see these articles as urging us to do more. I’m open to changing my mind at time, but as this point in my non-teaching teaching career, I see grammar instruction as something our students need from us, so they too have battle the green lines when necessary. The theorists who shaped my view champion for a descriptivist approach—yes, as Haynes also mentioned. Descriptivists see grammar positively and as a mean of achieving great clarity and style—and what harm can that do?


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