NMA Campaign Issue: Grammar and Mechanics

A Note About NMA Message Frameworks

NMA message frameworks are intended as starting points for NMA members to create their own messages. These might include (but are not limited to) letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, comments for local radio or television stations, and so on. Remember: the more locally grounded your message, the more likely it is to be included in local media. Feel free to add information based on your experience, your class, and/or your writing program.

NMA Message Framework - Grammar and Mechanics

Effective writing is free of surface errors. Typically, people use the term "grammar" to refer to these errors.

What is "grammar"? For language professionals like writing teachers and linguists, "grammar" refers to the structure of a language; all languages have grammars. Sometimes, grammar, usage, and mechanics are conflated, but they are not the same thing. For this reason, it is more precise to refer to the different kinds of errors that frequently appear in writing. For example, writers make:

  • Errors of punctuation (such as run-on sentences--also sometimes called comma splices); these are errors of mechanics.
  • Errors in constructing sentences (such as using inappropriate syntax); these are errors of grammar.
  • Errors of usage (such as use of inappropriate words).

Work on these important aspects of writing is most successfully tackled at the end of a writing process that involves invention, drafting, revising, and editing. However, writers are developing the skills to address these problems throughout their entire writing processes.

To help students successfully recognize and correct surface errors, five elements need to be present.

    1. Students must learn what is appropriate for different kinds of writing. Some sentences-- like run-on or incomplete sentences-- would be seen as errors in a formal essay or business letter, but might not be in a piece of fiction. Students need to learn that many rules depend on the kind writing they are working on.

    2. Students must work on grammar and usage issues in the context of their own writing, not worksheets or drilling exercises.

    3. Students need to know how to identify and solve particular usage problems they have.

    4. Students need time to work on error correction (that is, time for revision and editing).

    5. Most importantly, students need the motivation to spend the time. When students write about things they care about for readers who are eager to read what they have written, motivation comes easily.

Writing instructors reinforce correctness and appropriateness in almost all aspects of the writing classroom: frequent reading and writing activities, attentive listening and participation in class discussions, paper revision, and editing. In addition, typical activities in writing classes include analysis of the form of a piece of writing and choices made by writers (including their own). When students participate in the activities of writing classes, they are working both consciously and unconsciously on acquiring fluency in writing so that it becomes part of a habit of mind, not just a knowledge of rules.

Studies of writing conclude that there is no evidence that the constant and comprehensive study of traditional grammar rules helps improve student writing. In fact, some studies indicate that a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (including marking every error by a teacher) results in a decline in overall quality. Students for whom English is not their home language, for example, are frequently asked to engage in grammar and mechanics exercises. However, real fluency comes when they use the language in reading, writing and conversational activities with others. Understanding the rules of a language by studying it in context-- that is, within a body of writing-- can help all writers make conscious and critical choices, especially during the editing stage. Ironically, the more fluent a writer is, the more valuable it is to learn grammatical rules. In other words, instruction that makes specific reference to rules is most useful to the best writers.

When students do make errors of grammar, including punctuation and usage, these often come from lack of experience with particular kinds of writing with which students may be unfamiliar. At other times, novice writers may be unable to make proper distinctions between their spoken language and the writing that is appropriate in school and the workplace.

In any writing situation, writers have to juggle a variety of considerations at once. These include analyzing the expectations of their audience(s); organizing and developing appropriate ideas; marshalling evidence for their claims; incorporating their ideas into the ideas of others coherently and consistently; and using syntax and punctuation that is appropriate for the writing situation. For expert writers, some of these activities are automatic (usage and style conventions, for example), reducing the complexity and difficulty of the juggling act. It is natural, then, that as the writing task becomes more difficult, novice writers may make more errors in areas that are not yet automatic (in grammar and style).

Resources for More Learning about Grammar and Mechanics

  • Tips for Attracting Attention of Local Media

    • Act locally

    You are more likely to receive a hearing if the target for your media action is local-- campus and/or local newspapers, local public radio stations, even local television network. Local media are interested in local stories.

    Write what's most likely to get you heard, at least initially. In newspapers, letters to the editor and/or opinion-editorial (op-ed) pieces are most likely to be published. Issues like those in the NMA frameworks are current and timely.

    Take advantage of existing stories. It's often easier to advance a position with it's put in the context of something already determined to be newsworthy.

    Choose a local story to tell. Media outlets like details-- about programs, students, and/or classes. Choose a story in which to ground your message and make it lively.

    • Be concise and don't overcomplicate

    Writing and reading practices are complicated. When communicating with audiences outside of academe, make your case in the most clear and straightforward way possible. Avoid jargon and use clear, simple language. The NMA message frameworks are intended to help.

    Use the five Ws for your information (who, what, when, where, and why)

    Be honest and accurate. Understate your case. It is better to set reasonable expectations and then exceed them to promise more than you can deliver.

    If you are targeting radio and/or television reporters (or outlets), practice your responses before your interview. Choose key points to make, but be spontaneous in your discussions. Make sure you don't sound rehearsed.

    • Know your target

    Read newspapers, watch the television programs and listen to the radio programs you are interested in having cover issues or events that you are working on. You need to be familiar with their approach(es). You also need to use the conventions that they use for your responses.

    Understand the news planning process
    Find out deadlines and decision makers at news media organizations. Who assigns stories? What factors impact what gets covered? When are deadlines?

    Evaluate advertising. What audience is the publication or program trying to reach? Pitch stories that target a similar audience.

    • Become a resource

    Develop relationships with reports who cover your issue(s). What are they interested in? What do they want to write about?

    Be reliable. If reporters call you, return their calls as soon as possible.

    Don't overreach. If you don't know the answer to a question, say "I don't know" rather than coming up with something you aren't sure about.

    Know your opposition. Be ready and able to help reporters with alternative perspectives or stories that may not involve you or your organization so that they'll return to you as a regular source.

    This framework was developed by Darsie Bowden. Media tips are based on and include material from Stone's Throw Strategic Communication, Manhattan Beach, CA

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