The Dancing Comma, and Other Punctuation High Jinx

Social media are filled with bad political takes and far too much sexism and racism passed off as “It was a joke!”

Often in the same post.

But none of that can stand in the way of some good ol’ grammar, mechanics, and usage snark. Let’s take for example Benjamin Dreyer‘s interactions over Rob Lowe making a multi-level fool of himself on Twitter:

This Twitter discussion fits well into Dreyer’s recent release of Dreyer’s English and the perennial grammar wars (a bit of a misnomer since these wars between prescriptivists and descriptivists span across grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As Dreyer explains, punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks has different conventions in American and British usage:

  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second.” (American convention of period inside the closing quote mark.)
  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second”. (British convention of period outside the closing quote mark.)

These differences, I think, are excellent entry points into helping students copyedit their own work better, but also into fostering conventional awareness of language use (instead of a rules-based approach).

Image result for punctuation

I typically discuss the American/British difference before moving to the placement of punctuation in the context of quote marks as an issue of meaning, for example:

  • Standard English includes puzzling constructions such as, “I am being clear, aren’t I?”
  • Did you say, “My preferred name is Stephen”?

The question mark should remain, as in the first example, inside the closing quote mark to reflect that the quote itself is the question. In the second example, the entire sentence is the question, and the quote a statement; thus the question mark remains outside the closing quote mark.

All in all, these adventures in prescriptive versus descriptive approaches to language conventions may still feel like much ado about nothing to students, who often write because they are required to write and who simply don’t find the distinctions all that important.

The general public communicates moment by moment aloud and in text littered with so-called mistakes while also having almost no loss of communication.

And to be blunt, Rob Lowe’s problems in his Tweets are far less about his lack of understanding punctuation placement—and trying to show off about the Oxford comma but falling flat—and far more about his glib racism.

We descriptivists tend to argue that language conventions are a secondary issue to expression, although, as I explain below, it is nearly impossible to separate expression from conventions.

And so, this Twitter flurry over punctuation and quote marks provides another excellent entry point into helping students understand the role of conventional and purposeful language in establishing your credibility and authority as a writer.

As I have expressed before, some of the best lessons I ever learned about responding to student writing have been grounded in understanding how Advanced Placement graders are trained when scoring written responses.

One convention of writing about the action of fiction is to use present tense verbs—a contrast to using past tense verbs in detailing history.

However, at an AP training session, we were encouraged not to focus on the convention but to look for students being consistent. In other words, verb tense shift (dancing around from present to past without purpose or control) was a reason to lower a score, to identify the writing as less sophisticated.

I thought about this when I read Dreyer’s responses on Twitter because I still stress to my students that understanding punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks is mostly a problem for their credibility and authority as writers when the final punctuation dances around throughout the essay—some times inside, some times outside, with no rhyme or reason.

As a writing teacher who seeks ways to foster my students as autonomous and eager writers who also have a healthy attitude about language (an inclusive and historical awareness of conventions), I seek opportunities like Dreyer’s chastising Lowe as entry points into exploring conventional awareness and how language use cannot be disentangled from writer credibility and authority.

I often come back to again and again to making the case that credibility and authority are driven by writer control and purpose.

The dancing comma implies a lack of control, or purpose.

My argument, then, is not to browbeat students into being correct, but to encourage them to find ways to make their voices heard and appreciated.

And maybe to avoid being called out on social media, and to avoid stepping in the original mess again over and over.


My Journey with the Essay

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

I am a writer.

I am a teacher—often and maybe essentially a teacher of writing.

Through no real singular decision, I have become mostly a writer of essays and a poet, and concurrently, when I teach writing, almost exclusively a teacher of essays.

In May of 2018, I submitted a manuscript of a book on teaching writing. Recently, I have been compulsively checking the publisher’s web site because that book has been listed as “in press” for several weeks now.

Today, I checked and saw “published”—somewhat symbolically, I suppose, about a nine-month journey to its born-on date.

Those intervening months mean, as I argue in this collection of essays drawn from several years of blogging about teaching writing, that today I am a different writer and teacher of writing than when that manuscript was compiled and submitted.

Writing and teaching writing as journey, not destination, remains a powerful metaphor that grounds me because both avocations spark powerful and nearly debilitating anxiety in me.

As a regular blogger, I have become more and more skeptical of and terrified by the fixity of published works, especially books.

I like hyperlinks and being my own editor and publisher (although I often fumble these roles quite badly); I feel as if the blog posts are more living documents (I can and do copyedit them whenever I find mistakes or am prompted by a kind reader). And I have some concrete recognition of readers, a readership quantified and displayed daily for me by WordPress.

Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love a book.


Frost’s ode to a wall, I think, captures a similar ambiguity about books, especially for those of us enamored by them and for those who spend their lives critiquing and even criticizing them.

For the past nine months, I have been wading deeply into books about teaching writing—the production of my own book of essays and then reading and reviewing two published volumes by John Warner, Why They Can’t Write and  The Writer’s Practice.

This wading and mulling, nearly constantly thinking and rethinking, however, are nothing new because I exist in a permanent state of feeling compelled to write and teach writing along with being terrified I have no idea how to write or teach writing.

At the center of my compulsions and insecurities lies the essay.

Poets Write Beautiful Essays: On “Coyote” by Chloe Garcia Roberts

Like Warner, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I struggle with how to provide students some structure and guidelines for writing, and specifically writing essays, without reducing their task to templates, prescriptions, and rules that prove often to be false.

This morning as I saw that my book is now published, I read Chloe Garcia Roberts’s “Coyote,” and searched her book title, discovering that she is a poet.

And as I teach my students, I tend to read as a writer.

The essay “Coyote” opens with narrative, immediately engaging the reader with character, plot, and setting. While the first paragraph reads nothing like the introduction/thesis often prescribed to students, it does end by focusing the reader: “But actually what was happening here when the coyote was being seen as a dog was not passing, it was shifting.”

Soon, we realizing that Roberts is exploring ideas and words, “passing,” “shifting,” among others. But this isn’t some simplistic “definition essay” that may be assigned to high school students.

This essay by a poet is a testament to the power of mode—narration, description, exposition, persuasion—and a model of craft; Roberts offers historical references and literary allusions, and she breaks the narrator/reader wall.

What becomes compelling to me, however, is her diction, this essay as tour de force of seeking not a good word, but the right word, pushing me to google some along the way: liminal, thaumatrope, oscillation, crepuscular, rife.

The voice of the essayist, the poet-as-essayist, speaks through science, through history, through literature; layers here, I think, at the core of the essay speak about being an essayist like a coyote:

The ferryman is never the hero. He is always heartless. If your family cannot pay, you cannot pass. Reviled by both sides, his only purpose, his only function, is to change people from one side to the other. In Western myths, the ferryman sometimes rows alone and sometimes is accompanied by Hermes the trickster, the guider of souls. In American mythology, CoyĂłte plays all the roles. He is not a note in a larger spiritual pantheon but a full revolution of unraveling and creation, of journey and return.

The essay itself is a journey, and the essayist, then, is the ferryman.

“Coyote” is beautiful, and it meets the broad characteristics I often share with students: essays start somehow, develop some focus briefly and somehow, and then ends somehow—hopefully always compelling.

Now, with my teaching writing book published, I have come yet again to something new, something that will not be in that book about the essay itself as a journey, captured with poetic shape in the last paragraph of “Coyote,” again nothing like a traditional conclusion guided by the worst writing advice ever (restate the introduction in different words):

In English, a siren song is another way to say an alluring deception, a seductive lie. But I ask you: how can a song be deceptive if it is a matter of life or death that it be sung? If our very existence depends on it being sung? And in case you cannot see it, I should inform you I am singing right now.

Roberts ends with questions and her own alluring image of essayist singing, embracing the complexities she has drawn for us and drawn us into.

I, a fellow essayist and poet on a much less successful level, am further ferried along in my journey as writer and writing teacher, awaiting my copies of a book of essays, themselves fixed but just markers in my rearview mirror as I continue on my way.


Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice”

One of the most valuable habits I have cultivated as a teacher for 35-plus years is listening to my students in the spaces before and after class time. This is a kind of professional eavesdropping not intended to pry on my students personally but to hear who they are as students when they are relaxed and speaking with each other (not under the teacher’s gaze).

Before class during the start of this semester, I saw one of my students diligently reading and then talking with other students near her. She was reading “They Say/ I Say” for her first-year writing (FYW) seminar.

When I asked her about the text and the course, a floodgate opened; she and other students in the class truly dislike the text and the course using it.

Since I teach two sections of FYW each fall, and held a small administrative role for a few years over our retooled first-year seminar program, I often ask students to talk to me about their FYW experiences. Too often, I continue to hear that our students are in seminars that put writing instruction secondary, although writing is the primary purpose of the courses.

First-year writing for many students remains drudgery, repeating the experiences they have had in high school and throughout their K-12 courses.

As a teacher of writing, first at the secondary level for 18 years before teaching college writing currently, I have fought a long and discouraging battle against template approaches to writing instruction (typified by “They Say/I Say”), the five-paragraph essay, and rubrics.

Seeking authentic practices and teaching writing as a writer have been my guiding principles, but too often, that journey has been over rocky terrain and decidedly uphill. Writing prompts, templates, and rubrics are powerful and often necessary tools for teachers of writing with little or no experiences as writers, and these artificial tools also facilitate some of the most entrenched, and worst, practices in traditional schools—grades, testing, and accountability.

Fortunately, I have discovered an important and engaging (mostly virtual) colleague in the pursuit of effective and authentic writing instruction—writer, public intellectual, and teacher John Warner.

Quickly in the wake of his excellent Why They Can’t Write (see my review here), Warner now offers The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

In the former volume, Warner takes solid aim at the five-paragraph essay and this work appeals primarily to teachers of writing, I think. His Practice serves more as an authoritative guide for anyone who wants to be or grow as a writer.

While I think the title offers an excellent focus for the book and how to become a writer, or better writer, “practice,” Warner’s opening framing is also extremely important: “In this book, rather than ‘assignments’ or ‘essays,’ I want us to consider what we’re doing in terms of ‘experiences.'”

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the annual convention of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE). Throughout the sessions, keynotes, and conversations among teachers, I witnessed why Warner’s newest book is so valuable.

Many who teach literacy struggle with the tension between being authoritarian and being authoritative—a foundational teaching decision emphasized in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Writing and writing instruction driven by prompts, templates, and rubrics are authoritarian, thus simultaneously inauthentic and effective for control. Writing and writing instruction driven by structure (negotiated between teachers and students) and committed to providing students with many varied opportunities to make and practice the decisions writers make are authoritative, thus authentic but prone to uncertainty and unpredictability.

The authoritative teacher must have expertise and the ability to teach on the fly, regardless of the lesson plan.

Formal schooling tends toward the former because of the perceived need for control. However, writing is a complex behavior, and teaching writing often requires a teacher who is also a writer, who can guide novice writers through practiced experiences.

Practice, then, Warner explains, offers an authoritative text:

The goal is to provide a non-prescriptive alternative to a text like They Say/I Say while still honoring the kind of critical thinking we’re supposed to value in academia. I want that thinking to be fun, and engaging, and empowering, rather than intimidating, or something performed by rote to please a disembodied authority like a teacher, or worse, a faceless, unknowable “assessor.”

As I listened and discussed with friends and others at SCCTE, I once again recognized how many of us have failed writing instruction, allowed writing workshop and student choice to flounder because these practices have been confused with class time and student assignments devolving into unstructured and unguided license.

Writing workshop and student choice, however, are not about allowing students (who have little experience or expertise as writers) to do anything they please, but about an expert teacher providing purposeful structures within which students as novices can practice, revise, and grow as writers against their rich reading lives.

And thus, Warner’s Practice, which offers excellent opportunities for writers and teachers of writing to experiment with his framing in search of the practice that works best for them.

The volumes sections—skills drills, analytical writing, research and argument, other writing experiences (including a broad range from jokes to thinking about sentences)—are ideal for K-12 and post-secondary writing instruction that is primarily aimed at all students (not just those who want to be writers) and seeks a variety of essay writing grounded in the academic disciplines (more so than writing fiction and poetry).

Finally, a real gift of this volume is the Appendix where Warner offers some possible weekly structures for using this as a text in first-year writing.

As I did with Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommend Practice, especially for those who teach writing. It is a needed and compelling argument that writing requires structure and practice, but too often is muted by prompts, templates, and rubrics that serve an authoritarian goal but not the needs of students who could be writers.

Coming Soon (Shameless Plug Edition)

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP), P.L. Thomas

A Modest Proposal: Teaching without Students

This is not satire. Not even the sort of satire that opens with that disclaimer. But I would say this is a counterintuitive take on what it means to be a student from the perspective of a teacher.

I am considering here some of my lessons learned at the end of a semester. This fall schedule included an overload and variety of courses.

I also have been thinking about a couple of recent articles: Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had as a response to Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students.

In my young adult literature course, undergraduate and graduate students had to develop a resource unit grounded in young adult literature. They also needed to link that unit to either of the two elective texts for the course (one on critical media literacy or one on women in pop culture/comic books).

That resource unit assignment asked students to submit a proposal for the unit as the midterm exam. Of course, the purpose of the proposal is for students to have a plan by midterm and then to develop the unit over the rest of the course.

Here is the problem: Several students remained trapped in behaving as students (and not as teachers/scholars preparing a teaching unit). They viewed the proposal as an assignment instead of a proposal.

In other words, students kept asking to revise the proposal or have fretted about changing the unit as they worked. Instead of focusing on creating a powerful unit, they have felt compelled to remain true to the original proposal.

Student behaviors that are driving these problems include fulfilling assignments versus engaging with authentic behaviors and artifacts. These student behaviors lack an appreciation of discovery, and students seem unable to draft any product and to allow the process to evolve so that the final product is both high-quality and appropriate for their goals.

What students have learned for many years limits those students struggling with the proposal. For example, they have had to submit introductions and thesis statements for essays before drafting and then feel compelled to fulfill those regardless of what develops during the drafting.

Student behaviors and seeing their work as assignments also strip students of autonomy and agency. They fail to see their own role in the work because they are focusing on meeting requirements.

Across all my course, as well, students submit essays with drafting mandatory. While I have long struggled with fostering authentic drafting with students for many reasons, I encountered this semester a high rate of good students being stuck themselves in correcting based on my feedback. These students have resubmitted work too quickly, and seem unable (or unwilling) to behave with autonomy in revising and editing beyond my feedback (copyediting and highlighting).

In these situations, I am doing most of the work writers do. I resist this dynamic (while trying to avoid muting these students’ genuine interest in doing well) by highlighting areas of the drafts that target what we have covered in class and what I have addressed in my feedback.

Some students have resubmitted drafts without addressing areas highlighted, noting they didn’t do anything because they weren’t sure what to do. Another student response has been that students delete anything I have highlighted instead of revising or editing. One student deleted several excellent quotes although I had highlighted because she had formatted the quotes incorrectly.

Students not using technology as a tool contributes to the ineffectiveness of students drafting guided by my feedback (both on their essays and in conferences). Baffling to me, students submit drafts with Word Spelling and Grammar notifications (jagged underlining) enabled and ignored. Even more concerning, many students resubmit essays with elements as they were before I copyedited their drafts.

During a conference, I discovered that many students open my copyedited file beside their original file, working back and forth on two files instead of using my copyedited file. I should note that I tell them at the beginning of the course to learn how to save my returned files, rename those files for their next drafts, and then to interact with my highlighting and copyediting (using the Review features of Word).

Across these experiences with students this semester, I have seen even more evidence of my career-long fear that student behaviors are counter to rich and engaged learning, growth, and authentic creation. The young people I teach are too often paralyzed by student behaviors that mute their ability to engage with authentic work with agency and autonomy.

To be the best teacher I can be, then, means teaching without students.

For this to happen, I must find ways to deprogram students, to help them replace student behaviors with authentic behaviors. My goal is to create mentor/apprentice dynamics. I also recognize that introducing students to new ways of being in formal education can inhibit learning (my experiences with a de-grading and de-testing classroom).

My call for teaching without students is not satire, but a pretty high bar for any of us, teachers or students.

As a teacher always learning I am encouraged that there will be next semester, more students who I will urge to be different than the students they have been before.

Side Note

I revised this post using the Hemingway Editor.

In Brief: Drafting Absent Correctness and Universal Literature

Student Drafting without the Tyranny of Correctness

After I blogged about navigating the trivial in writing instruction, I shared the post with two first-year writing seminars. I then asked them a few questions about several of the claims I had made.

Several of the students quickly confirmed that most of their writing experiences before entering college and my class were driven by concerns about being correct and then efforts to correct their work when given an opportunity to revise.

From that, I asked if their experiences with drafting in my class had been different. Interestingly, in both classes, several students shared that they felt much more free to draft because I do not grade, I give them detailed feedback on their drafts and in conferences, and they know they will be able to address correctness later in the drafting process once they develop a draft worth editing.

The discussion did confirm that many of the students have begun to shift from focusing on the trivial and working more directly on the substantive—engaging and focused openings, specific openings and closings that help frame the essay, and maintaining the focus (thesis) throughout the essay.

I stressed to these students that I was aware we could accomplish only so much in one semester, but I felt over the next few years many would make great strides and attribute some of that to what we have established in these seminars.

On balance I feel confident many of my approaches to teaching writing have fostered healthy attitudes about language and writing in my students.

Rethinking Universal Literature: Unpacking Whiteness and Allegory

In her opening talk at NCTE’s 2018 national convention in Houston, Texas, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared a disturbing story about a white male cab driver quickly saying he would not be interested in her writing. The subtext of his response was that he assumed her work to be for women and blacks, only.

Adichie added that she never discounted white male writers in that way; in fact, she said she loved some dead white men writers.

Combined with a Saturday morning roundtable, Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms, experiences at the conference have begun to help me push against what literature we call “universal,” and how whiteness and maleness tend to hide beneath a cloak of allegory in ways that mask the racial and gendered elements in those works.

In my young adult literature class, we are exploring the film Pleasantville as text and how different media and expanding what counts as text can create diverse literature units.

Pleasantville demonstrates in film many of the characteristics we ask students to examine in print texts; it also expects close reading of technique by the viewer.

But one powerful aspect of the film is its investigation of race by using black-and-white against color and then exploring racism with a white cast (the segregation is between those in black-and-white and those in color):

Using this film can help students interrogate what we use to determine universality in literature, and then to consider if allegory allows whiteness and maleness to be normalized, and thus unacknowledged in ways that blackness and femaleness are not allowed to be unacknowledged or universal.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “Why They Can’t Write”

For my 35 years as an educator, I have taught writing and fought a seemingly fruitless battle against know-nothings who either pontificate about or make policy for education.

If I weren’t already an eager fan of John Warner’s blogging at Inside Higher Ed, I feel sure I would have immediately blown a gasket over his newest book’s title: Why They Can’t Write. Although almost immediately the subtitle would have definitely given me hope: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

I can assure you right off that this is not the sort of drivel the title echoes—Why Johnny Still Can’t Read — And What To Do About It—and instead is a very powerful call for teaching writing well from Warner who is both an accomplished writer and a seasoned writing teacher.

In fact, my strongest recommendation for this book is based on Warner’s expertise across writing and teaching combined with his commitment to remaining himself a student of both. Warner embodies my argument that teaching writing and writing are journeys, not destinations.

The opening, “Our Writing ‘Crisis,'” makes a really important and contrarian argument that, I think, guides the entire book. To the title’s assertion/question, Warner explains: “‘They’re doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do; that’s the problem.'”

As a first-year writing teacher at the college level, Warner has witnessed much of the same dynamics I have experienced over about the same time period; if students struggle with writing in ways that are expected at the college level, much of that disconnect can be seen in those students having been taught what is essentially bad practice—focusing on correctness and correcting, conforming to prompts and templates, having over-simplified concepts of evidence and citation, performing very limited writing capabilities that parallel very weak thinking (linked to the five-paragraph essay that Warner rejects).

An excellent evidence-based companion to Warner’s book, in fact, is Applebee and Langer’s research on the teaching of writing at the middle and high school levels. They detail that while most teachers in all disciplines know more than ever about how to teach writing well (in ways Warner outlines in his book), students write less often and shorter pieces in English as well as their other courses.

The culprit? High-stakes accountability in the form of standards and, most of all, testing.

All teachers who have some responsibilities teaching writing should read this book, but those engaged with first-year writing may be most compelled by Warner’s messages.

Another strong aspect of this work is that Warner’s writing is always engaging while remaining very practical—something practitioners tend to demand.

I think his Part II really shines by highlighting problems: atmosphere (“‘School sucks'”), surveillance, assessment and standardization, education fads, technology hype, folklore, and precarity. Many of these are recurring concerns I have experienced teaching high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as college-level writing since 2002.

Stylistically, Warner has chosen to be conversational, so this volume is not heavily cited with current research on composition. While some may bristle at this choice, I am very comfortable noting that Warner’s critiques and recommendations match well with that research base (again, consider Applebee and Langer, but also Peter Smagorinsky and a long list of K-12 researchers and practitioners advocating writing workshop).

What teachers find in Warner is a confession that writing and teaching writing are damned challenging. But he also offers foundational concepts and practices if our goal is to foster developing writers who think and compose by choice and with purpose.

This is not about test-prep. This is not about inauthentic compliance masquerading as writing.

Being a writer and teaching writing are mostly about problems. Warner recognizes the problems (and if you teach writing, so will you), and the challenges, but also provides some important reassurances that we can teach writing better, probably well, and then, our students? Well, they can write if offered the opportunity.

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction

Most teachers charged with writing instruction at all levels from K-12 through graduate education have far too little time and almost impossible learning conditions in order to teach writing well, much less completely.

After decades of teaching writing, I have far more questions, and goals, than I have answers.

But I do have two guiding principles that I believe help my writing instruction to be more effective, if still lacking: (1) no writing-intensive course is an inoculation (writing and students are not diseased things to be cured), and (2) to invoke Thoreau, it is not any writing teacher’s duty to do everything, but to do something well.

With those in mind, this Twitter exchange provides an excellent entry point to how we should navigate the trivial in our very challenging work teaching writing:

Drezner’s original Tweet and Warner’s reply provide an important tension that all writing teachers face, the tension between the trivial (elements such as format, grammar, mechanics, and usage) and the substantive (expression, credibility of claims and evidence, audience awareness, purposefulness, etc.).

Broadly, this debate sits within the prescriptivist versus descriptivist approaches to language. For teachers of writing, I think we must acknowledge that prescriptivism remains the norm in both formal education and social norms. In other words, many people are prone to see (or hear) “errors” and then to draw some evaluative conclusions from those “errors” regardless of the credibility or effectiveness of the whole text or expression.

Drezner is typical of those who cannot look past the trivial (confusing “it’s” and “its”) in order to recognize the ultimate whole of the text.

Like Warner, I rest in the camp that rejects prescriptivism and seek ways to focus my instruction, and student drafting, on the substance of their writing as well as their journey to being writers and scholars.

But this is no new tension, as Lou LaBrant (1946) expresses, many decades before Warner’s retort: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing.”

With limited time and reduced teaching and learning conditions, teachers of writing must focus on priorities—fostering purposeful, thoughtful, and risk-taking young writers who have an awareness of prescriptivism and the consequences of so-called “errors” in their writing.

As a first-year writing teacher, I can attest that most of my students enter my writing-intensive classes mostly viewing their work as students to be about correctness and then when prompted to revise or rewrite, to be about correcting.

Their priorities learned in formal schooling about writing are the inverse of LaBrant’s mantra above; students believe correctness trumps content because they have often submitted “irresponsible, unimportant writing,” driven by the teacher’s prompts, and received high grades simply for having conventional surface features.

One example of how I try to navigate the trivial in writing instruction is the current debates about “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I offer students a mini-lesson on how language changes, a short overview of the history of the English language with some examples (grain/corn, the demonizing of “ain’t” and the tortured construction “Aren’t I?” that grew out of that), and then I introduce them to the “they” debate.

We examine pronoun/antecedent agreement and concerns about sexist language (the use of “he” as gender neutral, for example) before I detail for them that they are living in a time of language flux; many formal publications and organizations now have standardized “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun (see especially NCTE).

However, I also address with them that many people remain trapped in the fading prescriptive view of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I caution students that they may (likely will) encounter professors and others who will, as Drezner’s Tweet in the opening shows, make conscious or unconscious decisions about their credibility as writers based on the developing convention of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I often follow this with a discussion of my own experiences as a student in the 1970s and 1980s that included drills and workbook exercises on “shall” and “will”—noting that poor “shall” is now deceased. This leads me to the certain impending demise of “whom” coming, I think, in my students’ lifetime.

As their writing teacher, I am committed to fostering purposefulness in my students, and to help them rise above the paralysis of correctness. I want them to have healthy attitudes about language and writing, much as linguists and writers do.

Yet, this effort to raise their awareness about the specter of the language police while prioritizing their content, organization, style, and such as purposeful writers is no easy task.

It is nearly impossible to break them from habits formed over years—viewing their job as being correct or correcting their drafts—and my own practice, I fear still seems to them to prioritize the trivial.

One of my strategies embedded in my requirement that students draft and conference with me during each essay is that I use highlighting in Word to draw their eyes to the trivial (issues of grammar, mechanics, usage, and format) and reserve comments and the conferences for what I consider to be substance.

I will still highlight, for example, a singular gender neutral use of “they,” and may add a comment asking if they have used this with purpose and with awareness, but I have no policy about their grades based on that use (I do not grade writing at all in fact).

Since many of the elements I highlight are what most teachers would call “errors,” students tend to ask me why I highlight, leading to a mini-lesson. Occasionally, the highlighting works, and students self-edit, if needed.

My work as a teacher of writing, then, is defined in many ways by the tension in the Tweet exchange above. I feel mostly compelled to foster my students as purposeful writers and scholars with healthy attitudes about language and writing.

But I also feel an ethical obligation to make my students aware that language use is political, that language use (often the trivial) has real consequences for them as students and in their lives beyond formal schooling.

I do invite them to join me is changing the norm of prescriptivism, to challenge the language police, but I also am deeply aware that is a tall task to ask of any of us.

LaBrant (1952) lamented that “thousands of teachers seem to resent or refuse to recognize change.” This, I think, is a grand failure when we are teaching writing and ultimately thinking.

Language is in constant flux, and our students are both agents and victims of that change.

Navigating the trivial in writing instruction is ultimately about honoring the human dignity of our students because language is an essential part of that humanity.