University Writing Center's Grammar Workshop Spring 2017

a stack of books

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On Friday, March 24, Praxis held a grammar workshop led by Executive Editor Patricia Roberts-Miller (or Trish, as we affectionately know her ‘round these parts). The talk was well attended, with nearly twenty five students eager to discuss grammar and style. The talk was a prerequisite for a Praxis workshop that we hold every semester for our consultants as part of our Scholarly Writing and Editing certificate. The Praxis workshop offers our undergraduate consultants a chance to see the inner workings of the journal, learn about the publication process, and acquire hands on experience working with the journal by leaning copy editing and formatting when we assemble the journal.

Trish’s talk was engaging and walked our students through a number of questions they had about grammar, punctuation, and—most importantly—when so-called “errors” are just stylistic preferences. She began by asking us where you get advice when planning a wedding and what each interested party wanted. Naturally, each party wanted something from the wedding, whether it was wedding magazines wanting to sell products or your parents worrying about prestige and reputation. Then she asked us where we went for writing advice—the answers were not entirely dissimilar.

 She then had the audience crowd-source a list of social mores before unpacking where each one came from and why it existed (you use a different fork for salad, for instance, because the vinegar from the salad could tarnish the sterling silver of your main fork). Many of the norms were arbitrary social constructions that often served as markers of class and status.

Then Trish asked us to recount grammar rules that we’d been told. Nearly every student in attendance had been told a grammar rule that was hard and fast. Don’t split infinitives. Never end a sentence with a preposition. The Oxford comma. Comma splices. After a few minutes, we’d compiled a list of rules as long as the other two, and perhaps could have easily filled one of the other whiteboards in the learning lab. Trish proceeded to explain why several of these rules were not necessarily “rules” but, like the social mores, socially and contextually situated. Often, like the wedding advice, many sources for writing advice from also have an agenda of some kind.

Once Trish had suggested that many of the rules the room had previously thought of as commandments sent down from on high were just someone’s opinion about what makes good writing, she set about showing us what she felt were the most useful conventions to remember. She discussed distinguishing between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions and how to use them, and how to avoid predication errors. Her talk was aimed at helping our consultants understand that grammar and punctuation are not the end-all, be-all of strong writing, and that many of the rules that we learn as beginning writers are not gospel. This, of course, isn't to say that the rules and guidelines writing guides set forth are bad--just that they sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt. Many of them are conventional, contextual, and depend on a wide variety of circumstances: genre, audience, and purpose, among others.

Trish’s grammar workshop was informative and enlightening, and it seemed that our consultants got a lot out of it. It was also exciting to see how many consultants were willing to show up on a Friday afternoon to hear about conjunctive adverbs.  What was also interesting was that the stellar attendance suggests that our consultants are quite interested in honing their grammar and punctuation skills. We are grateful to Trish for taking the time to talk to our undergraduates about some of the skills they’ll need to master as copy editors.