I began teaching writing at a small college in Montgomery, Ala., quite a distance in so many ways from my native New York City. In the Cradle of the Confederacy I helped develop English 100, a course for students who had not yet mastered basic language skills. In three years of teaching that course, I learned that students — some of them in their thirties and forties — committed many of the same errors in class after class.
- They wrote unintended sentence fragments.
- They wrote run-on sentences or spliced together sentences with a lowly comma.
- They failed to make subjects agree with verbs, or pronouns with antecedents.
- They misplaced modifiers. (“Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”)
- They confused “who” and “whom” and made other case errors.
- They could not form the possessive correctly.
- They misspelled many words.
- They had little control of punctuation.
- They’d often confuse one word or phrase for another (“discrete” with “discreet”).
A few years later, I served as a volunteer teacher at an elementary school in St. Petersburg, Fla., an experience that inspired my first book “Free To Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers.” In most respects, the writing of my best fifth grade students was more interesting and free of error than the work of my worst college students. And even the weaker children showed a stronger desire to learn the tools of the English language than their older counterparts, who had never mastered the basic strategies of making meaning, and who may have thought they never could.
Every mistake I’ve encountered in the writing of children I’ve also found in the work of adults. Many of these errors — including mine — come from haste and inattention rather than ignorance. Others come from confusion or misunderstanding of how the language should work.
Teaching grammar and usage takes a good deal of patience and humor, whether the students are young or old. Every champion of green light grammar must also be ready to flash a yellow or red light when necessary. A teacher must be willing to tell a student time and again that the writer has made a distracting mechanical error in a story. “Let’s get rid of it,” I say, “so we can get this piece published, and you can win a Pulitzer Prize!”
Curiously, no mistake is more pervasive and persistent than the misspelling of the words “a lot.” I have read the first stories of first graders and the first novels of adults and have gritted my teeth over the mistake in both. I have taught the correct spelling one year and seen a good student misspell the words again the next. My guess is that students have always spelled it “alot,” though I am willing to consider evidence that there was once a golden age in which students, from fear of the rack, always left a space between the “a” and the “l.”
My frustration increased until a teacher taught me a strategy known by children as the Yucky List, though adults in search of assonance seem to prefer the PG-13 rated S*** List, henceforth known simply as The List.
When I see a number of students using “a lot,” I teach a mini-lesson: “I want you to notice that I’m putting “a lot’ on The List. Many of you are spelling it as if it were one word. But it’s really two words: ‘a lot.’ I don’t want you to hand in your first novel misspelling the words ‘a lot.’ So I’m telling you now, if you misspell these words, or misuse any other word or phrase on The List, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll … shave my head.” Since I’m naturally headed in that direction, they laugh — but not when there is work to do.
The List is a long sheet of white paper displayed in front of the classroom for the entire school year. Every time the teacher pays special attention to a mechanical mistake during a lesson, that offending problem goes on The List. Keeping the list in view at all times is important. It provides a daily reminder of students’ most common errors, the ones to be carefully avoided. If the student comes to a problem but forgets how to solve it, the kid can look up at the list for the answer.
Every writer of every age needs a list. I’ve got an informal one that contains many of the common mistakes I’ve already admitted to as a writer. Here’s the beginning of a yucky list I once compiled for elementary school writers, mistakes made by many older writers as well:
1. It’s not alot, but two words: a lot.
2. They’re going to keep the wet boots in their lockers, over there.
3. It’s a shame that the new puppy lost its way home.
4. The coach has been suspended. Two players are headed to the woodshed too.
5. Our finest hour will come when we are champions.
6. Her pride and selfishness know no bounds.
7. Not could of, but could have.
8. Not Baypoint Elementary, but Bay Point (for goodness sakes, spell the name of the school correctly!)
9. Not freind, but friend.
10. Not aks, but ask.
Students of any age bear the responsibility for improving and correcting their own work. What turns the red light grammar to green is the process of using the knowledge on the list to revise, proofread, correct and edit written work. The mechanics of language are best learned when they are applied, day after day, in our reading and our writing.
To avoid common errors, check your inclination to make them. In a notebook or a computer file, compile a list of your most common mistakes. Include grammar, syntax, usage, punctuation and spelling. When you or someone else discovers an error in your work, add it to your list. If you think it will help, hang some version of The List near your writing space.
Share this list with me and other writers by posting to Twitter with the tag #writingerrors, or post your common writing errors in the comments below.
The List will be useless if you do not proofread your copy. For many writers it proves difficult to find errors in their own work. Because the writer knows what the text is supposed to say, her eyes may flash over a mistake. The writer sees what she thinks is there. One strategy is to let the draft cool off for a while; even a bit of distance from the text improves your vision.
For one week, proofread every message you write, everything from reports, to stories, to formal letters, to e-mail messages, to text messages. This will help prevent the informality of your online writing bleeding into your more formal work.
I learned this lesson at a student’s expense. I wrote a letter of recommendation for a young man who was trying to get into a highly selective graduate program. Pressed for time, I dashed off the letter as an e-mail attachment and punched the send button. The next day I noticed, to my shame, that it contained three typographical errors. I can’t say for sure whether these mistakes hurt his chances, but I now hold myself to a much higher standard. What good is learning the technical aspects of the language if your inattention makes you look lazy or ignorant?