Grammar for Non-Majors

Students frequently point out to me that they are not English majors, so they don't need to write well. They claim that the world of business and/or education and/or science doesn't require much writing and will tolerate a great amount of error or non-standard usage and grammar.

They are wrong.

If these students ever want to move up from stacking boxes in the warehouse (their current involvement in the world of big business) to being part of a management team, they must look and sound like educated people, and their toughest audience is the people who will hire them.

Welcome to the real world

Grammar is not random, nor is it impossible. In fact, a relatively small number of errors come around repeatedly, so if you can identify your own problem areas (use the markings you receive on your papers as a guide), you can make a course of study for yourself.

You will see two lists below. The first list is an educators' list based on problems found in college student essays. The second list comes from professionals who are not educators, and it shows which errors they find most annoying. Your best strategy for improving your grammar and usage is to:

  1. Copy both lists and begin keeping a tally of your own errors. You want to pay attention to the problems you have most frequently.
  2. Use the grammar handbook and the writing center to figure out how to deal with your most frequent problems.
  3. When you proofread any of your papers (not just the ones for English class), pay special attention to the problems you found in your tally of your own errors.

The Educators’ List

Spelling errors were the most frequent (and the most easily fixed). No matter how small the assignment, you should always run the spell checker before you submit it. Hit the F7 button at the top of the keyboard if you are running Microsoft Word on a Windows computer. If you are using Microsoft Word on an Apple, press Option + Command + L. Homonyms/Homophones (sound-alike words) are a special problem because the spelling checker won't show you that you made a mistake.

Here are the remaining errors, in order of frequency from a large sample of student papers (Public Schools of North Carolina). If you master these issues, you have probably dealt with 90% of the grammar you need:

  1. No comma after an introductory element
  2. Vague pronoun reference
  3. No comma in compound sentence
  4. Wrong word
  5. No comma in nonrestrictive element
  6. Wrong/missing inflected endings
  7. Wrong or missing preposition
  8. Comma splice
  9. Possessive apostrophe error
  10. Tense shift
  11. Unnecessary shift in person
  12. Sentence fragment
  13. Wrong tense or verb form
  14. Subject-verb agreement
  15. Lack of comma in series
  16. Pronoun agreement error
  17. Unnecessary comma with restrictive element
  18. Run-on or fused sentence
  19. Dangling or misplaced modifier
  20. Its/It's error

The Non-Educators’ List

We continually pass judgment on our fellow humans, and their speech/writing give us our most important data. When John Updike's short story "A&P" opens, the speaker says, "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits," and we know immediately that the speaker is probably young and certainly uneducated. We need nothing more than the subject/verb agreement problem to show us that the speaker, a grocery store cashier, wouldn't be very impressive if he applied for the manager's job.

The following section is quoted from Linda Aragoni's website.

In 1981, researcher Maxine Hairston set out to discover what kinds of errors in writing and speaking professional people regarded as most serious. Hairston sent out 101 surveys consisting of 65 sentences containing a grammatical error. She grouped errors into five categories according to how serious the 84 respondents considered them to be.

Hairston's respondents were most upset by a class of errors she called status marking errors. Such errors may not prevent writers and speakers from being understood, but they mark people who use them as poorly educated, low income, and low social status.

Professionals had a very negative reaction to types of errors which teachers may not target for remediation—errors that don't appear as items on standardized tests and may not appear in students' writing. The errors do, however, appear often in speech.¹

Examples of status-marking errors that caused Hairston's respondents to wince are:

Here is an analysis of Hairston's work, from the North Carolina website.

The professionals indicated the degree to which the error bothered them and Hairston classified them into groups from the most serious to the least serious in these people's estimations. Those responding reacted very strongly to the group of errors marked "Status Marking" and less strongly toward those classed as "Very Serious," "Serious," "Moderately Serious," and "Minor or Unimportant."

STATUS MARKING

VERY SERIOUS

SERIOUS

MODERATELY SERIOUS

MINOR OR UNIMPORTANT


  1. I disagree with Aragoni: many of my students see writing as simply a recording of their speech patterns, so these errors often show up in student essays. You will notice that most of the errors focus on non-standard verb usage. The would of versus would have problem is another place where students get in trouble by simply recording their speech sounds. I also see this when students "write with an accent," for example writing "I fill good" instead of "I feel good."
  2. In my experience, writers and speakers who use object forms for compound subjects ("Him and me") do two other things that really irritate professional readers: They open with the first person instead of putting the first person last in the list, and they use a singular verb with a compound subject, so the supremely annoying sentence (wrong on three counts) usually comes out as "Me and him was just sitting there." That just screams "I'm low-status and uneducated" to most professional readers. (By the way, the correct form would be "He and I were just sitting there.")

Aragoni, Linda. "Essential Grammar According to Research Studies." You Can Teach Writing, 31 Dec. 2010, www.you-can-teach-writing.com/essential-grammar.html. Accessed 11 Aug. 2011.

Public Schools of North Carolina State Board of Education. "English Language Arts Resources: In the Right Direction." NC Standard Course of Study, www.dpi.state.nc.us/curriculum/languagearts/secondary/rightdirection3/005research?&print=true. Accessed 11 Aug. 2011.