Many people have been sporting graphic tees, and not just ones with the usual sports or college logos but with bold, witty statements printed across the chest. Here are a few interesting ones I have seen lately: “My unicorn ate my homework,” “Take me anywhere but here,” and “Haute Mess.” While recently scrolling through an online catalog, a graphic tee caught my attention. Against its black background were these words written in bold white lettering: “I’m Secretly Correcting Your Grammar.” The obvious wearers might be English majors, those whose peers regard them as gatekeepers of English grammar. Drawn to the writing on the shirt, I carried out a survey on campus to find out whether non-English majors would wear the t-shirt. And, if so, what are their top three grammar pet peeves?
The survey sought to find out if students secretly judge their peers’ grammar as they engage in weekly student discussion boards. Five out of the twenty students who participated declared their indifference to the topic. The other fifteen claimed that there were certain grammar errors that got in the way of understanding particular posts.
The top pet peeves were attributed to errors of punctuation, especially when sentences run into each other with no period in sight. Next in line were typographical errors. One student noted that it is unwise to rely on computer spellcheckers. She’s right! The following example proves her point: “Taxes became a state on December 29, 1845.” Spotting the difference between “Taxes” and “Texas,” especially at the beginning of a sentence, is a task reserved for the human eye.
Some of the respondents cited traditional errors of English grammar. A few mentioned errors of subject and verb agreement. One student noted the shift in verb tense as her top pet-peeve:
I walked into Chipotle and discover my friends.
Keeping the two verbs in past tense may be an important indicator of time:
I walked into Chipotle and discovered my friends.
Maybe it might be better to shift both verbs to the present tense:
I walk into Chipotle and discover my friend.
One student said she dislikes when colloquial expressions get in the way—that is, when people’s writing models the way they speak. She specified that she was not fond of reading student posts in which the word “like” is frequently inserted.
The general responses indicate that poor grammar choices distract from meaning, while attention to detail adds to the overall clarity of expression. Obvious errors possibly exist because some students post their first drafts. In the Editing Essentials course this semester, the class is studying Theodore Cheney’s Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing, in which the author gives essential advice for all writers. “A first draft almost always suffers from tangles. The reader will get lost in the tangle of words and won’t see the beauty of the forest if you don’t get in with the brush hook and machete,” Cheney writes. The “brush hook and machete” are editing tools.
Sometimes all it takes is a second reading or a second pair of eyes. Just remember that after your work is published online, there may be a fellow student who is secretly correcting your grammar.