The grammar wars

Views on English grammar are as numerous as the rules they comment on. Lynne Truss of Eats Shoots and Leaves sees it as a system vital to clarify meaning in a writing-based culture. Christian Lander of the blog Stuff White People Like jokingly explains it as a system of arbitrary rules that people use to judge others. Normally, these differing views clash in the form of simple jokes about inferiority complexes, or in hard-core Facebook groups. At UTM though, faculty views on grammar, writing and pedagogy can have academic consequences, and in the Fine Art History program, students and faculty sometimes clash over these issues.
The Fine Art History program uses a penalization system where students in their second or third year can lose up to 25% of their paper grades based on grammatical errors. Since the majority of FAH students grades come from papers, proper grammar aint no laughing matter. Though the initiative means the sought-after perfect-grade paper can become an average one and an average paper can become a fail paper, students can regain lost marks by taking grammar workshops at the academic skills centre, run by Dr. Tyler Tokaryk. To FAH Professor Alison Syme, the initiative is a necessity. This is all about a failure of the high school system. Most students come in with no knowledge of grammar and come in with serious writing problems, which causes problems when they need to read critically.
At first, we were just trying to overcome this overwhelming problem, said Syme. Weve been refining the system every year. At first, students in first year courses could lose up to 25% on grammatical errors, with second and third years able to lose up to 40%. Now, first year students attend grammar tutorials, and the maximum that third and second year students can lose is 25%, Students taking fourth year courses are not penalized at all. Fine Art students can also easily regain the marks by attending lectures and taking simple grammatical quizzes, which, according to Syme, many students do, valuing the grammar initiative for the skills they learn.
Some students do not agree with this assessment, saying that their mark deductions are too extreme and that the make-up tests do not reflect real learning.
Most students attend the workshops simply to regain points, said VG, a third year English and Fine Art History major, and no one really takes anything from the classes. The program is unnecessary and the time spent in workshops takes away from valuable time needed to complete assignments.
Other students claimed the judgement is too extreme: the graders exploit needless, obscure uses of punctuation to deduct grades, penalize correctly spelled but strange-looking artistic words (Syme ensures that this no longer occurs) and receive more scrutiny than students in other fields, such as English. Albert Dalton, who saw the CVMC arrive in his third year, eventually found it beneficial to his writing.
Through constant vigilance, the quality of my writing elevated. I personally cant recall ever losing a greater amount than 9% on any single assignment. He noticed that other students did not fare as well. I inevitably empathized with their frustrations, but I never once felt they were unfairly or unjustly treated. Their writing simply didnt communicate effective understanding. Dalton added that he earned his current employment due in part to the skills the initiative allowed to acquire.
Perhaps if the initiative was based on a genuine lack of coherent thought, then perhaps less students would find fault with it. Some students believe, however, that a disjunct exists between what professors and what graders view as grammatical.
I found it frustrating that my professors had very little difficulty understanding my papers and deemed my papers to be legible, coherent and to be of higher than average standing, and yet the grammar nazis believed I was inept with the English language, said student Andrea Hitchman.
Farrukh Rafiq acknowledged that the graders were sometimes to harsh, but also saw the value of forcing students to learn. What percent of the procrastinating majority will devote their free time to improve their writing? If youre serious about pursuing Art History, then you wont mind getting some extra help to improve the way you present your arguments.
Whatever the case, the conflict between the supporters and decriers seems to begin and end with the beliefs of what grammar is, and how to teach it. Grammar is a system of communication, and while vital to a writing culture, should be based on accurate transmission of thought and not which variations of the Oxford comma students adhere to. Although everyone seems to believe this, the difference is how this belief is applied. Hopefully, these different camps can work together to find a mutually satisfying situation.

Views on English grammar are as numerous as the rules they comment on. Lynne Truss of Eats Shoots and Leaves sees it as a system vital to clarify meaning in a writing-based culture. Christian Lander of the blog Stuff White People Like jokingly explains it as a system of arbitrary rules that people use to judge others. Normally, these differing views clash in the form of simple jokes about inferiority complexes, or in hard-core Facebook groups. At UTM though, faculty views on grammar, writing and pedagogy can have academic consequences, and in the Fine Art History program, students and faculty sometimes clash over these issues.

The Fine Art History program uses a penalization system where students in their second or third year can lose up to 25% of their paper grades based on grammatical errors. Since the majority of FAH students grades come from papers, proper grammar aint no laughing matter. Though the initiative means the sought-after perfect-grade paper can become an average one and an average paper can become a fail paper, students can regain lost marks by taking grammar workshops at the academic skills centre, run by Dr. Tyler Tokaryk. To FAH Professor Alison Syme, the initiative is a necessity. This is all about a failure of the high school system. Most students come in with no knowledge of grammar and come in with serious writing problems, which causes problems when they need to read critically.

At first, we were just trying to overcome this overwhelming problem, said Syme. Weve been refining the system every year. At first, students in first year courses could lose up to 25% on grammatical errors, with second and third years able to lose up to 40%. Now, first year students attend grammar tutorials, and the maximum that third and second year students can lose is 25%, Students taking fourth year courses are not penalized at all. Fine Art students can also easily regain the marks by attending lectures and taking simple grammatical quizzes, which, according to Syme, many students do, valuing the grammar initiative for the skills they learn.

Some students do not agree with this assessment, saying that their mark deductions are too extreme and that the make-up tests do not reflect real learning.

Most students attend the workshops simply to regain points, said VG, a third year English and Fine Art History major, and no one really takes anything from the classes. The program is unnecessary and the time spent in workshops takes away from valuable time needed to complete assignments.

Other students claimed the judgement is too extreme: the graders exploit needless, obscure uses of punctuation to deduct grades, penalize correctly spelled but strange-looking artistic words (Syme ensures that this no longer occurs) and receive more scrutiny than students in other fields, such as English. Albert Dalton, who saw the CVMC arrive in his third year, eventually found it beneficial to his writing.

Through constant vigilance, the quality of my writing elevated. I personally cant recall ever losing a greater amount than 9% on any single assignment. He noticed that other students did not fare as well. I inevitably empathized with their frustrations, but I never once felt they were unfairly or unjustly treated. Their writing simply didnt communicate effective understanding. Dalton added that he earned his current employment due in part to the skills the initiative allowed to acquire.

Perhaps if the initiative was based on a genuine lack of coherent thought, then perhaps less students would find fault with it. Some students believe, however, that a disjunct exists between what professors and what graders view as grammatical.

I found it frustrating that my professors had very little difficulty understanding my papers and deemed my papers to be legible, coherent and to be of higher than average standing, and yet the grammar nazis believed I was inept with the English language, said student Andrea Hitchman.

Farrukh Rafiq acknowledged that the graders were sometimes to harsh, but also saw the value of forcing students to learn. What percent of the procrastinating majority will devote their free time to improve their writing? If youre serious about pursuing Art History, then you wont mind getting some extra help to improve the way you present your arguments.

Whatever the case, the conflict between the supporters and decriers seems to begin and end with the beliefs of what grammar is, and how to teach it. Grammar is a system of communication, and while vital to a writing culture, should be based on accurate transmission of thought and not which variations of the Oxford comma students adhere to. Although everyone seems to believe this, the difference is how this belief is applied. Hopefully, these different camps can work together to find a mutually satisfying situation.

  • Steve

    Dear The Medium,

    An interesting article to read, with plenteous ironies, parodies, and contradictories in a very debatable philosophical manner.

    Who the hell are we to talk about grammar? Who the hell are they to talk about grammar? Who the hell are these educational institutions, who believe hold power of truths to justify right or wrong, when that itself is something you couldn’t be sure of? How the hell can you measure the unmeasurable, let alone believing you have the audacity to grant marks or deduct marks because of grammatical “errors”?

    And that is what exactly Plato, founder of what we call “university” today, would and might have said if he’s still alive.

    To grammar dogmatics who claim to hold the power of truths stated in this article (you know who they are), consider this:

    English grammar is confusing enough as it is – what makes it doubly confounding is that, like women’s fashions, it is constantly changing. This means that some of the strict rules which you memorised so painfully in your high school or college English courses may no longer be completely valid. In other words, you may be knocking yourself out in an attempt to speak perfect English, and yet only achieve, at best, the doubtful distinction of sounding stuffy and pedantic. The problem boils down to this: If grammar is becoming more liberal from one generation to another, what is the state of the language in 1949? Where does educated, unaffected speech end? And where does illiterate, ungrammatical speech begin?

    So…is grammar an exact science? Well, it is a science, but the most inexact one. There are no inflexible laws, no absolutely hard and fast rules, no unchanging principles. Correctness varies with the times and depends much more on geography, on social class, and on collective human caprice than on the restrictions found in textbooks.

    “A person lost 10% on grammatical errors. The person foolish enough to believe he has the authority to do that marking loses 20%”. – King Solomon –

    How about if we put it to another extreme?

    “Grammatical error? Well, we learn and write English but speak American. Is that counted?” – Oscar Wilde –

    Well? You decide.

  • James

    Steve,

    Grammatical errors in your ‘comment’ aside, the program at UTM uses criteria that is applicable today.

    I’ll keep it simple: So what? You still need to understand how to write properly to move ahead in certain disciplines, and the ones in charge of accepting your admission requests aren’t going to be interested in the changing state of grammar.

  • Sophie

    All irregularities of grammar aside, the aim of the CVMC initiative is not actually to penalize students, but rather to teach them/us a standardized and correct English. Ultimately, it is only for our own benefit as correct language is of great importance. While there are definite and acceptable variations in vocabulary and construction in different social/geographic/economic circles, there is still value in learning and being aware of accurate English.

    My frustration is not with the grammar initiative itself, but with the inconsistencies from department to department. Why does A&AH deduct more than English? Why is there no standardized regulation across faculties in the marking of standardized language? I understand the stress it would place on workshops and other services that facilitate the CVMC initiative, but is grammar not something equally important to an individual studying art history as it is to an individual studying computer science? I realize certain disciplines do not require the same volume of written assignments, but when they are required we should be treated with equal scrutiny.