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Grammatical worries of writing lab consultants.

A client lumbers through the writing center's doors, waves her draft in the air, and cries out, "I need help with my commas!" As much as writing centers pride themselves on being more than "grammar garages" (Waldo 415), many students--like this one--still seek out labs expressly for help with editing.

Such lowered-ordered concerns are usually not a top priority in tutorials; nonetheless, consultants should receive training in grammar, usage, and punctuation so they will feel comfortable and secure handling clients' editing questions. How, then, can directors discover what grammatical concerns need attention in training? I turned to the consultants themselves, who, by being in the trenches, know best what grammatical problems worry them the most.

Using a technique I called "the grammar card box," I asked tutors to write anonymously on a note card any question about grammar, punctuation, or usage, and to provide an example so that the question is clear enough to answer. Then, the cards were placed in a box and brought to a staff meeting, where I dramatically drew from the box a card containing a question. Together, consultants and I tried to answer it.

At the beginning of seven fall terms (1999-2005), I asked consultants to submit these grammar cards, always voluntarily. The tutors were primarily undergraduates, the majority of whom were not majoring in English, but in Art History, Biology, Chemistry, Communication, Education, History, Political Science, Psychology, or Sociology. I would hazard to guess these consultants are like tutors elsewhere, being chosen for their intelligence, empathy, and writing abilities.

Now, it is true that consultants may have hesitated to reveal where they had problems with grammar, especially when they felt they were hired to work in the lab based partially on their good grammatical knowledge. It is also true that because they could choose not to submit a card, their questions probably reflected only a few of their grammatical concerns. It is also true that the particular questions my consultants asked could vary from writing center to writing center; nevertheless, I would like to share with other labs what these consultants submitted in order to see grammatical worries other directors might address when conducting grammar review sessions for their tutors.

My consultants' questions fell into three categories: most frequently asked topics (i.e., the topics occurred every fall when I collected cards), frequently asked (questions arose three times during the seven falls), and the least asked topics (questions occurred only twice during the seven years I received cards).


* Who versus whom and the uses of commas were the two most frequently asked topics.

The who versus whom cards focused on a limited use of these pronouns: dependent clauses. A consultant asked, "I am still very unclear on this, especially when there is a parenthetical statement involved, as in 'He is the candidate (who or whom), I think, will win the election'." Choosing the correct pronoun means decoding the sentence's structure, so the questions indicated consultants were somewhat insecure when analyzing syntax.

The other most frequently asked topic centered on using that ubiquitous, challenging mark: the comma. Even though rules for commas are far from absolute, tutors--like so many other writers--sought guidance on three uses of commas, areas about which many professional writers are unsure: after introductory elements, before coordinate conjunctions joining sentences, and preceding such as and as well as.

Questions about commas after introductory elements showed consultants had seen the mark used in so many different ways they were not confident telling clients how to use it. Tutors asked, "When starting a sentence, what is the minimum number of words in the opening that would require a comma to follow?" and "When do you use a comma after introductory elements, such as 'On Tuesday I will take a test' vs. 'In my apartment, the air conditioner is broken'?" Such uncertainty about inserting commas shows this rule might be in transit.

Another punctuation rule baffled consultants: using a comma before FANBOYS (the acronym for the coordinate conjunctions, for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so) joining two independent clauses. Consultants felt the rule was not clear, asking, "Do you use a comma for FANBOYS, as in 'The minutes would pass, and then suddenly Einstein would stop pacing as his face relaxed into a gentle smile.'?" So, although this rule is well established, tutors needed some review before when helping clients.

A last tutor question addressed a specific but uncommon use of commas: "Are commas needed before such as or as well as?" Because these two prepositions have similar forms, consultants tended to equate them. Directors should expect to explain the semantic difference between the two phrases. Such as introduces an example, so a comma precedes it; as well as merely adds information, so no comma is needed.


* Frequently asked topics concentrated on four areas: beginnings and endings of sentences, agreement of subject and verb, subjunctive mood, and punctuation (quotation marks, semicolons, and apostrophes).

Worrying about sentence structure, consultants asked, "Can writers start a sentence with and or but?" and "Can one end a sentence with a preposition, as in 'I have so much to look forward to.'"? These questions focused on two rules famously derived from Latin: Latin coordinate conjunctions join, so they cannot be placed at the beginning of a sentence; a Latin preposition precedes its object, so it cannot end the Latin sentence and, by extension, the English sentence as well. The tutors' questions, though, reflected the on-going trouble with traditional English grammar--much of it is based on Latin. As Bill Bryson argues, "Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football. It is a patent absurdity" (137). Apparently, consultants sensed these Latin rules did not apply to idiomatic English usage.

Subject-verb agreement questions concentrated on tricky issues: disjunctive subjects found with correlative conjunctions, such as "Neither his sisters nor his brother (is/are) coming" and subject-verb agreement in dependent clauses like "He is one of the boys who (was/were) chosen." The questions suggest, again, consultants needed a bit more practice analyzing syntax so they could select the correct number of a verb.

Another frequently occurring topic was the perennial problem with subjunctive mood after the verb wish, as in "I wish I (was/were) able to go." Here, the oral use of the language seems to have influenced tutors, with consultants' mirroring spoken English and replacing were with was.

Punctuation is often a problem for writers, so it is not surprising that consultants asked about quotation marks, semicolons, and apostrophes. Tutors wondered, "Do you use quotation marks or italics to show special emphasis in a sentence? 'If that upsets her, it is not "my" fault.'" Consultants also questioned whether one can "use single quotation marks (' ') in any case other than quoting inside quotes?" Finally, tutors asked about whether the titles of novellas and long short stories were placed in quotation marks or underlined. Such specialized questions indicated consultants were keen on getting right even "micro-editing" points--all part of their admirable attitude of not letting down their clients.

The semicolon also caused consternation: "Can the semicolon substitute for a comma?" and "Semicolons: is there a time to use them that is more appropriate than other times? 'I walked to the store. I bought some milk.' or 'I walked to the store; I bought some milk.'" I suspect because consultants themselves might not use this mark very much, they lacked confidence when talking about it to clients.

Another punctuation mark--the apostrophe--bothered the tutors as well: "Do proper nouns ending with s form their possessive with an s and an apostrophe or with just an apostrophe as in the following: "'Is it Zeats' or Zeats's?'. Do these names get another 's?" Here grammar textbooks, especially at the college level, vary so much that it is no wonder tutors were confused. One consultant said she was taught that if the person had lived in ancient times, the name received only the apostrophe (Sophocles'); however, if the person had thrived in a more modern era, writers put both the apostrophe and s after the name (Keats's). Such a wired-together explanation implies the rule for apostrophes on proper names ending in s is variable, even transitory.


* For least frequently asked topics, tutors were concerned about usage, pronouns, and terminology.

A key usage question was the difference between lie and lay: "I often use these incorrectly in speech, and, although I am somewhat aware of the difference, I would like to know the precise rules. Example: 'Lay the book on the table.' 'Are you just going to lie about it?'" Here consultants echoed the concerns of the general public which constantly confuses the two verb forms, as did the noted Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert in a recent review which described the main character in Taking Lives as "laying [sic] in the grave." Even while the academic world is trying to preserve the difference between lie and lay, consultants' questions about the two verbs showed that lie and lay are engaged in an on-going, hard-fought battle. Another usage item was the word hopefully. A consultant asked, "Why is it wrong to use hopefully as 'Hopefully, the sun will shine for the picnic,' and what can we use instead of it?" The spoken version of English has already accepted hopefully as an introductory adverb analogous to sentences beginning with "Thankfully, the rains held off until the picnic ended" or "Fortunately, the sun shone brightly on the picnic." So, the tutor sensed the traditional rule against using hopefully as in introductory adverb needed clarification.

Pronoun questions also arose, questions revealing tutors were aware that the oral use of the language differs from the academy's Standard Edited English (SEE). For instance, one tutor asked, "Do I use that or which as in 'I love grass (which/that) feels soft?'" While spoken English interchanges these pronouns, the written would make the distinction between which for a nonrestrictive clause and that for a restrictive clause. The effect of oral English also appeared in a question about implied plural pronouns. A tutor asked, "Do I say, 'Every old man, young man, and boy did his or their best?'" During everyday spoken usage, the tutor had heard their used to refer to singular every but recalled, from grammar drills, that his is the proper form in written English. Cases for personal pronouns were another tutorial concern: "Sometimes I don't know whether to use 'he' or 'him' as in 'He is wiser than I.' Why is it not 'me'?" asked one consultant. This question demonstrated how tutors reside in two worlds. Representing writing labs, they feel they should use SEE, yet also existing in the world of students, they employ the students' oral version of the language. While talking to each other in the lab, consultants have been heard to use the objective pronoun case: "Me and John met with a study group last week"; but if they had written the same sentence, they would have used the subject forms "John and I ... " As residents of two language worlds, they are aware, then, that the SEE version differs from the oral use of language. In trying to transverse the two worlds of oral and written English, they would naturally have questions about pronoun cases.

Even though terminology for traditional grammar is notoriously confusing, consultants, for the most part, were well versed in the names for different parts of sentences. Their few questions about terminology showed, though, that they possessed operational but not declarative knowledge. They could write sentences using conjunctive adverbs and independent and dependent clauses, but they wanted a simple, direct way to explain these concepts to clients, asking, "What is the protocol for words like therefore, however, and rather. When or should they be avoided?" and "Review the terms independent and dependent clauses." Being able to use a grammatical structure is one thing; being able to talk about it to clients is another matter, as the consultants sensed.

Besides being unsure about how to define a few terms, they also showed they needed help with the latest grammatical terminology. They were thrown by the label subjective complement: "Provide a definition of subjective complement. Does it always rename the subject of the sentence as in 'Deborah is a surgeon'?" After I had explained that subjective complement is the same as predicate adjective or predicate nominative, tutors nodded their heads in recognition, showing just the term subjective complement had confused them.

Other questions about terminology, though, revealed tutors were not comfortable with a vital concept: the dangling modifier. They asked, "Please give a definition of 'dangling" in grammatical nomenclature." and "What is the correct way to use a dangling modifier, or should you even use one at all?" Ninety percent of students applying to work in the lab miss this example of dangling modifier appearing on their interview test: "While flying to Honolulu, an idea occurred to her." So they could discover the illogical element in "While flying to Honolulu," consultants needed some practice analyzing syntax.


Although consultants' questions will vary from lab to lab, these grammar cards offer a snapshot of what all directors might include in their training. They could, for example, discuss the variance between oral and written uses of language so tutors understand how spoken English impinges on the written. One of the best means for stressing this point is to have tutors read Martin Joos's now classic The Five Clocks, where Joos relates usage to different clocks in a train station. For another valuable training technique, consultants could read Gary Sloan's College Composition and Communication article "The Subversive Effects of Oral Culture on Student Writing" so that when consultants spot oral occurrences in papers, they can explain to clients that the spoken use may be appropriate on some occasions whereas the written version is needed for more formal expression. The result is that clients and tutors both gain better insight into language levels.

While my consultants never asked about fundamentals (like comma splices and fused sentences), they were, however, having trouble choosing the proper pronoun case, recognizing dangling modifiers, and using the right number of the verb after neither/nor and either/or. So, a review of syntactical analysis would probably help most tutors. During a staff meeting, directors could explain the ten basic sentence types so well summarized by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk in their teacher-training book Understanding English Grammar. Once consultants realize that English sentences fall into only a few patterns (such as "Noun Phrase + to be+ adverb of time/place" or such as "Noun Phrase + intransitive verb"), they will feel more comfortable decoding sentences to show clients how to choose the right number of a verb. In fact, I have found that consultants--rather than being offended--are pleased to learn they possess an innate sense of sentences, making them feel more assured when talking to clients.

Tutors could also benefit from learning about the constant changes inherent in grammar. Latin rules about sentence openings and endings are fading fast. Hopefully is becoming acceptable. "Everyone did their best" is taking root, even in the academy. Again, having consultants read an article (such as Alleen Pace Nilsein's article "Why Keep Searching When It's Already Their? Reconsidering Everybody's Pronoun Problem") would underscore that these language changes, like the tides, always happen. By learning about these alterations in SEE, tutors can accept changes arising in students' papers and even explain to clients how language alters constantly.

Finally, just to be sure consultants are prepared to help clients, directors could have tutors read key pages in any prominent grammar handbook, focusing on important grammar points. Out of a long-standing custom, my lab uses the venerable Harbrace, but other handbooks would do as well. Which editing concerns should consultants read about? Taking from Rei R. Noguchi's list of the most common editing problems (as found in his Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities) and being aware of the grammar problems clients bring to my own lab, I have asked my consultants--at the beginning of each term--to read over the following Harbrace sections: case, agreement, verb forms, adverbs, reference of pronouns, commas, apostrophes, and parallelism. Then, consultants complete review sheets based on the Harbrace sections. In this way, they know how to use a reference book on grammar (especially when they and clients want to research a topic), and they themselves have practiced editing for common problems.


Directors should not, of course, expend all their training time on mini-grammar courses; and no directors would want to convert their consultants into English teachers spouting the same terminology and phrasing as we sometimes do about grammar. After all, the consultants' ability to define and describe grammar problems in student language makes tutors invaluable to their labs. They use peer talk to talk to peers about grammar. However, the cards with the consultants' questions do show that tutors could review variations in language levels, syntax, and definitions so that directors and consultants alike can better hack their way through "grammatical thorniness" (Gillespie) and, ultimately, assist clients standing in the lab door, waving their papers, demanding help with commas.

Works Cited

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Ebert, Roger. Taking Lives. Rev. Ebert & Roeper. 14 March 2004. Wolo-TV, Columbia, SC.

Gillespie, Paula. Conference on College Composition and Communication. Atlanta. 27 March 1999.

Glenn, Cheryl, and Loretta Gray, eds. Hodges' Harbrace Handbook. 16th ed. Boston: Thomson, 2007.

Hairston, Maxine. "Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage." College English 43 (1981): 794-806.

Joos, Martin. The Five Clocks. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

Kolln, Martha, and Robert W. Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 7th ed. Boston: Longman, 2006.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace. "Why Keep Searching When It's Already Their? Reconsidering Everybody's Pronoun Problem." English Journal 90.4 (March 2001): 68-73.

Noguchi, Rei. Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.

Sloan, Gary. "The Subversive Effects of Oral Culture on Student Writing" College Composition and Communication 30 (1979): 156-60.

Waldo, Mark L. "The Last Best Place for Writing Across the Curriculum: The Writing Center." WPA: Writing Program Administration 16.3 (1993): 15-26. Rpt. in The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory. Ed. Robert W. Barnett and Jacob S. Blummer. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. 415-25.

Bonnie Devet

College of Charleston, Charleston, SC
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Author:Devet, Bonnie
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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