“I need help with grammar.” It’s the most common response from students when asked what they would like to work on in their papers. Why grammar? Why not ask, “Is my thesis or argument sound?”
According to the OED (my bible of dictionaries, as you know), grammar is:
“that department of the study of a language which deals with its inflexional forms or other means of indicating the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage; usually including also the department which deals with the phonetic system of the language and the principles of its representation in writing.”
Um, what? If you actually read through that definition and understood its meaning, then kudos to you! Grammar has never been something that we understand on a conscious level. In fact, grammar is much easier said than done.
Because of this philosophy, we place more emphasis on “higher order concerns” when we’re looking at students’ papers in the Writing Center. Higher order concerns include (but are not limited to) thesis development, supporting ideas, organization/structure, and addressing assignment guidelines. Some lower order concerns are grammar, diction, and proper use of citations.
If there are larger issues that interfere with the meaning of your work, we will begin the session by addressing those concerns first. You will be surprised to discover that sometimes the grammatical errors have a way of fixing themselves after you’ve revised your writing.
Hence, our focus will not be on your grammatical errors so much as, say, the general content of your academic paper – if it flows, if the paragraphs connect, and if the argument (as a whole) makes sense to the reader.
Again, that’s not to say that we won’t help you with grammar. If your grammatical errors are interfering with the clarity of your writing, that’s important to us. We will also spend time locating resources for you if you need a rule of thumb to follow for the next paper you write.
We want to know that you are working toward recognizing your own flaws when writing, e.g., if you need to write better topic sentences to help you transition your thoughts more smoothly or if your conclusion doesn’t relate back to your thesis and, therefore, needs some revising. Did you follow the prompt? Should you have written a few more sentences on that quotation? Is your thesis easily identifiable and does it make sense?
Our purpose as writing consultants is to help you become a better writer, not a grammarian. Grammar is important, but it’s not the most important part of a paper.
Besides, sentence diagramming is ancient history.