5 Steps to Better Grammar

by Karen Rosenberg

Here’s a confession: I need to check my grammar. Often. As the Director of the Writing and Communication Center, you might think that sparkling grammar and usage skills would be a prerequisite, a kind of minimum job qualification. But I have my weak spots, my who vs. whoms and affect vs. effects. I don’t get too worked up about it because I know how to check myself and I know I don’t have to go it alone. I also know that standard U.S. academic grammar conventions aren’t the only right way to write—they’re just one set of rules that confer certain privileges to those who follow them.  From my own experience (backed up by research on how people learn), I offer you these five tips for improving your standard grammar and usage:

1. Find your people. Learning thrives in community.  Cultivate yours.  Who can answer your questions?  Who can point out your mistakes? Who can help you chart your progress?  Here are four groups to consider:

  • Community learning is what we live for in the Writing and Communication Center, so get to know us and develop ongoing working relationships with our Peer Consultants.
  • Develop and leverage your relationships with your professors. Read their comments on your papers.  Visit them during office hours.  Tell them you want to improve your writing and ask them to tell you your strengths as well as areas for growth.  Ask for specifics.
  • Find classmates to work with. Offer to read their papers and ask them to read yours.  Even if you feel you have a lot to learn about writing, you can offer invaluable feedback to others by asking questions and marking places that confused you or where you think they should check their grammar.  Ask your friends to tell you where your grammar seems strong and where you should take another look.
  • Find kind grammar-ninja friends and family. It can be helpful to have them proofread your work, but it’s even better if they can read your work over time and help you identify areas of strength and challenge.  They can then celebrate with you when you rock out with your comma usage or subject-verb agreement.

2. Write about it. There’s lots of great evidence that reflection makes us better (and happier) learners.  On your standard U.S. academic grammar journey, you can create an ongoing document charting your strengths, areas for improvement, and progress.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy (unless you like fancy), but it should be a place where you can write about what you’re working on, what supports are helping you, and what obstacles you’re facing.  Your ongoing reflection can be quite structured, or more freestyle.

3. Find your go-to grammar resources and use them.   As I mentioned, I regularly check my grammar and over the years I’ve found sources that work for me.  I am totally crushed out on the handouts from the University of North Carolina Writing Center, I’m grateful to Grammar Girl and I find great information at the Purdue OWL.

4. Put in the time. There’s no way around it: improving our writing—including but not limited to our grammar—takes time.  Investing the time when you are in college lets you take advantage of the amazing resources all around you (see #1, above).  Put in the time and you will see improvements, and you may even have fun in the process.

5. Grammar is never just about the grammar. Different ways of writing, including ways that break standard grammar rules, imply different meanings, ideas, and questions.  What is the impact of different grammar choices? Approach your writing with an open-hearted curiosity and use your grammar choices as a way to delve deeper into your amazing ideas.


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