7 myths about grammar

A leading journalism professor shares what he’s learned about teaching grammar.

It was a simple exercise in punctuation and grammar at a seminar I was doing for a staff of writers at a prestigious university. In one of the sentences, a participant had removed a set of commas that had erroneously surrounded an essential, restrictive clause. I was pleased until I asked her why she had removed them. “Oh, I hate commas,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she had a master’s in English, and also, not surprisingly, she eventually lost her job.

Organization managers of communications are forever complaining about how the people they hire know little about grammar and the basic rules of punctuation and consistent style. This is true even of people who graduate from journalism schools. What is much worse are all of the “non-writers,” the executives, the engineers, the technicians and those from all walks of corporate life who contribute to publications of all kinds and to Web sites.

For nearly three decades, I taught a magazine editing class to juniors, seniors and graduate students at the Missouri School of Journalism. When I began teaching it, I had no idea how much time I would spend thinking, writing and teaching about grammar. I learned quickly that I could take absolutely nothing for granted regarding how much grammar the students knew and could apply.

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