University Writing Center Blog

Posted on March 26th, 2014 by Jennifer Mahoney

by Corinne Owens, Student Consultant, University Writing Center

“I’m really bad at grammar.”

I’ve only been officially working at the Writing Center for a few months now, and I feel like I’ve heard this phrase uttered more than any other in my time here. Students are so often insecure about their ability to write error-free papers that it cripples them. Inevitably, this fear of failure prevents them from producing their best writing…or any writing at all. I know tutors have heard this before, but I’m not sure that our tutees have, and they need to:

Just because a paper lacks major grammatical errors does not make it a successful piece of writing. Good papers need a depth of substance and content. They need to really say something to readers and say it in a digestible format. Focus on these things first, and then it is feasible to worry over mistakes at the sentence and word levels.

As writers, our goal is to respond to audience expectations, and this goal should be the initial concern. What do I want to say and to whom am I saying it? The format and the content of a piece of writing should respond to these two questions. Once they have been thoroughly answered (and I mean thoroughly; this is why we revise), then a writer can shift focus to the syntax and the spelling errors in the writing.

Writers adhere to grammatical and spelling standards in order to present clear, comprehensible writing for their audiences. The English gods haven’t simply decreed standardized writing forms to fill their ‘evil overlord’ roles and make our lives unnecessarily miserable. English-speaking society developed consistent, academic prose to ease communication between a writer and his or her readers. However, this wasn’t always the case. Prior to and during the early Middle English period (around 1100-1500 AD), English-speakers wrote phonetically—according to the speech sounds of their respective dialects. At that time, several different dialects were spoken across the whole of England, so these varied spellings made it more difficult for readers and writers of dissimilar dialects to communicate. When William Caxton introduced the printing press in England around 1500 AD, he chose to print documents in the London dialect in an attempt to reach the widest audience; London and the nearby universities (Oxford and Cambridge) made up the metropolitan and academic heart of the country. As a result of Caxton’s prints and his dialectal decisions (among other factors), a standardized written form of English emerged.1

You’re probably sitting there shaking your head and asking: “Why did she just give me a history lesson?” First, I’m attempting to make use of the knowledge I’ve gained in my History of the English Language course this semester (which is arguably a less important reason). Second, I’m showing you that standard English syntax and spelling have evolved as a direct result of the need for ease of communication with an audience. This clues writers in to the necessity of adhering to modern English expectations and—more vitally—keeping our audiences in mind.

Is grammar important? Undeniably, yes, it is critical for comprehensible writing. But writers should never allow grammar concerns to prevent them from fulfilling the primary goal—conveying their major points to their readers. When we writers sit down to compose first drafts, we should forget grammatical mistakes. Say what you need to say, people! Write it all out. Let it flow from your fingertips. Do not pause to change your form of ‘there,’ to reposition your comma, or to consider the number of s’s in Mississippi. Speak to your readers and organize your ideas in a clear format. Once you’ve done those things to the best of your ability, then you can worry about the grammatical issues that might cause difficulties in audience understanding.

I’ve sat in too many tutoring sessions where students omitted colorful adjectives or illustrative active verbs while writing because they were unsure of spellings. I’ve seen students eliminate beautiful complex sentences because they were uncomfortable converting them from mental musings to concrete writing on the page. Fear of grammatical and spelling errors has prevented innovative writing from occurring—writing that might actually speak more clearly to an audience. Do not let your apprehension about making mistakes stop you from writing at all. You know more grammar than you think you do. People often speak it much better than is reflected in their writing because of their fears about written grammar mistakes—and striking writing never sees the page.

Although grammar is not the most important concern when constructing a piece of writing, it can be a barrier to readability. I understand that many students have their hang-ups and issues with this aspect of writing. We all do. Therefore, here is a short list of some strategies that I use during my writing process to polish my papers and present my best written voice to my readers:

1. Speak what you want to say before you write it. Putting words on the page can seem a daunting, intimidating task. If you are having trouble getting an idea across, speak your thoughts aloud and then copy them to the page. You may have some unnecessary ‘like’ additives or run-on sentences, but you shouldn’t be concerned about these things in the beginning stages of writing. Hopefully, verbalizing your ideas before copying them to the page might make your sentence constructions more interesting and your ideas more understandable than they would have been if you had written them first.

2. Why’d you stop? If you find yourself avoiding words because you are unsure of spellings or eliminating sentence constructions because punctuation is worrying you, STOP IT. I mean it. Go ahead and write everything down first. When you avoid things out of fear, you prevent yourself from making creative writing decisions.

3. Go back and slowly read what you’ve written. Once you’ve finished a comprehensive draft with strong ideas and organization, read your paper aloud to yourself—and read it slowly. Oftentimes, you catch typos, misspellings, and syntax errors when you can hear the paper instead of silently reading it (where you can ment ally gloss over these mistakes). An even better tactic is to have other people read your writing aloud; they’ll stumble over unnecessarily complicated sections and pause when writing is unclear. Hearing their journey through your writing will allow you to pinpoint areas where changes need to be made.

4. Read your paper backwards. When sentences no longer make sense to you because you are reading them in reverse, it is much easier to pick-up on typos and misspelled words. Although this might feel silly at first, it is a helpful practice.

5. Know your personal patterns of error. Typically, writers make their own patterns of grammatical mistakes. For instance, when I am typing, it is common for me to miss the d’s at the end of my and’s. Because I know that I make this typo a lot, I always go back through my writing paying special attention to all of my “and” and “an” words. When writers are aware of their regular mistakes, it is much easier for them to edit for those mistakes at the end of the writing process. Pay attention to your own.

6. Stuck? Consult the Writing Center and other sources. No one knows absolutely everything about English grammar and spelling. Even writing tutors must seek aid at times. The University Writing Center can help you understand or alleviate any confusing grammatical concerns. Although we are not an editing service, we can help you expand your own knowledge so that you might be better prepared to tackle writing affairs in the future. If you do not have time for a session, you can always consult the handouts on our website ( Still stuck? If you Google a major grammatical concern, you can usually find an answer to your problem. However, try to only consult reputable sources (e.g. university websites).

I hope and pray that some of my advice helps you in future writing endeavors. Do not fear grammar, my friends. If used correctly, it is an indispensable ally to have.

1Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.