I found the chapters “Syntax” and “Common Errors” from Mina Shaughnessy’s Error and Expectations to be perhaps the most enlightening reading assingment yet this semester. Although I’ve been teaching writing in a variety of contexts in high school classes for five years now, I got a bit of a wake up call when I visited with a student from English 100 a few weeks ago. When I sat down for the tutoring session and began to look over his paper, I suddenly realized how inadequate my approach to basic writing has been. Sure, I could have shredded his paper like some kind of grammar ninja, but the truth was that 1) There were problems that went way beyond grammar and punctuation 2) I had no idea how to decode the complex system of errors he was making. Heck, at the time I didn’t even have a name for half of them. In other words, I didn’t really know what to do to help him because I couldn’t see beyond the chaos of errors. The result was a sort of generic session where I gave him tips that would help pretty much any young writer, but didn’t necessarily get to the heart of his problems.
These chapters presented me for the first time with a detailed look inside the mind of the basic writer. Shaughnessy not only details the types of errors that basic writers tend to make, she explains why they make them as well. On the one hand, it was all sort of overwhelming: that means not only teaching students the standard rules, but also disassembling the personal logic behind their nonstandard forms. On the other hand, it was reassuring because it showed a method behind the madness.
While Shaughnessy maintains that basic writers can be taught the rules to the system we call Standard English, she also does a good job of keeping teachers’ overall goals in perspective. Our goal is not necessarily to produce writers that write perfectly, but to “help students reduce their errors to a level that is tolerable to their readers” (128). Shaughnessy points out that “…many of their problems with written English are obviously linked to the accidents of transcription in an unfamiliar medium, others seem to be rooted in real differences between spoken and written sentences…” (51). So if it is “their inexperience with writing rather than with the language itself” that leads to many of the errors, naturally a lot of practice is going to be in order—so much so that the “new” standard system becomes an unconscious part of the writing process (90). She argues that “…composing requires the writer to forget about the details that a proofreader must scrutinize” (128). Therefore, not only must the new system be learned, but also it must eventually become so engrained that they are no longer inhibited by their “code-consciousness” as they write (45). This can probably not be accomplished in a single semester—definitely not in one afternoon tutoring session—but Shaughnessy seems to imply that it is the long-term goal that each basic writer should be working toward.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.