Historians Teaching Grammar

Heather Cox Richardson

Over the years, I’ve experimented a lot with how to teach writing. Increasingly, I get a significant number of students who don’t even know what a sentence is. Of course this means I spend most of my time on the larger picture of writing: thesis statements, structure, supporting evidence and so on.

But at some point, I got tired of correcting the same grammatical errors for the thousandth time. That frustration made me play around with some new approaches. One of the ones that seems to work is to treat the mechanics of writing like mathematical principle. Rather than repeatedly marking certain grammatical errors that come up again and again, and reminding the students to pay attention to them, I have taught the rule AS A RULE and told the students that this is the way things are, just as 2 + 2 + 4. Always. Period. I told them I would not accept any more mistakes on that particular rule. I’m still experimenting with how frequently I can introduce a new no-break rule, but one a week seems an acceptable pace for now.

Far from resenting this rote method—which conjures for me that dreadful orange grammar text we dragged ourselves through in eighth grade—the students seem thrilled to have found something they can hang on to with certainty in their writing. Yes, they still mess the rules up, but far less frequently. And when they do, I can just mark the error without explaining the rule in my comments.

I recently put to paper my four favorite rules for high school students. These are the ones that if violated immediately marks an essay as grammatically problematic (although they are only the top four). I’d like to keep building this list, so if anyone has suggestions, let me know.

Four crucial rules for ratcheting up your writing:

1. Make sure your subject and verb agree. For example: "Bats in the tent behind the tree were (not was) black."

2. Get your verb tenses correct. (This one is the hardest one on the list. Let me give you some tricks to get it right. First of all, put everything in past tense. English teachers sometimes get upset at that advice because they argue that literature is alive, and thus should be discussed in present tense. Yep. Okay. Got it. Now ignore that instruction unless you have a teacher that absolutely insists on it. Most readers are quite content to have everything in a single tense, and the past is a zillion times easier to manage in an essay than the present. Second, everyone—absolutely everyone—screws up the past and the past perfect. Don’t worry about the names of the tenses. Figure it out this way: imagine your action on a timeline. The majority of what’s happening in your essay will be in past tense. IF SOMETHING HAPPENS BEFORE THE MAJORITY OF THE ACTION, slip in a verb that indicates an earlier time. Usually, this will be the word “had.” For example: “He hoped that the ship would arrive that day, but he HAD heard the day before that it would be late.” This won’t always work, but it will work often enough that it’s worth doing. Just as if you were speaking, by the way.

3. An introductory clause always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, (get the picture?) always, always, always, ALWAYS modifies the noun that comes immediately after it. ALWAYS. So:

“Running down the alley, he dropped the knife,” is correct.

“Running down the alley, the knife dropped from his hand,” is wrong, wrong, wrong, because the knife is not running down the alley.

4. Keep your writing in active voice. Avoid passives whenever possible (which is about 98.5% of the time). This is a very hard thing for students to manage, for two reasons. First of all, for some reason we have this weird idea that it sounds smart to write prose that has no action, as if somehow it makes us sound learned and above the fray to write as if events just occur. Second, using passive voice makes it possible to refrain from taking any sort of position on your topic. In passive voice, things just happen; you don’t have to explain why or how they happened. Passive voice is disastrous for both writers and thinkers. Take a look at this example: Here are two ways to write about a horrific massacre of more than 250 people, shot and knifed as they surrendered to soldiers. So which is more honest? “Two hundred and fifty people were shot,” or “Angry soldiers murdered two hundred and fifty women and children”? In the first, the deaths just happen; no one is at fault. In the second, I have squarely blamed the murders on the people who committed them. In the second version I’ve tried to explain an event, the actors, and the action. I’ve had to figure out exactly what happened, I’ve thought about the action, and I’ve taken a stand. And that’s why we write, isn’t it? To tell someone about the world. Active voice makes you stick your neck out, and it will make people angry at times. But it enables you to contribute your own ideas and vision to the world. Plus it’s a zillion times more fun to read than passive voice!