Written by Lawrence Barkley and Christine Sandoval, authors of Grammar and Usage, Naturally, 1st Edition


In no other field except grammar and rhetoric, to our knowledge, do instructors sometimes forego the use of the field’s professional vocabulary when teaching the subject in introductory courses. Take, for example, the following two sentences, one from anthropology, the other from biology.

In anatomical position, the skull is the most superior skeletal element, connected to the postcrania by the occipital condyles attaching to the superior articular facets of the atlas.

The CRISPR/Cas (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR associated protein) system, a prokaryotic immune system that confers resistance to foreign genetic elements, has sparked a revolution in molecular biology.

If you lost your way because you were confused by either sentence’s terminology, then you were experiencing what many of our students undergo and continue to endure when we don’t require them to learn standard grammatical terminology.

Instructors in other fields tend to create atmospheres in which scholarly discourse can occur, where everyone can participate in the conversation and feel empowered by that participation. This enables students to grow as learners. As instructors, we need to use proper, field-recognized grammatical terminology to create a classroom environment that allows our students to communicate as skilled, confident writers and editors. For without a common language, the conversation between instructors and students is limited, if not altogether absent.

Grammatical terminology in all course levels

Teaching both developmental writing and college-level critical thinking and composition courses, we see the empowerment of students who are able to participate in the discussion of our language as well as the frustration and demoralization of those who are not able to participate.

We see our developmental students’ confidence rise when we engage in editing exercises during which they can explain how they have manipulated their phrases and clauses to revise an awkward or confusing sentence into a graceful and effective one.

Adversely, when our upper-level students are unable to understand our evaluation of their writing, we can see not only their frustration but also their indignance: “Why weren’t we taught this before?” they ask us.  And then because we are unable to communicate in the same language, we must resort to “This sentence just doesn’t flow” or “It’s confusing,” or “It’s awkward,” all of which could mean a myriad of issues are present: dangling or misplaced modifiers, parallel structure errors, passive voice.

As a serendipitous benefit of requiring our students to know grammatical terminology, we have also observed that when students are able to understand how the parts of a sentence work together, they are better able to understand how the parts of a paragraph work together and how the parts of an essay work together.

Differing opinions

We’ve found that integrating the vocabulary of grammar allows students to participate in the grammatical conversation as well as ensure they will understand any instructor or tutor with whom they come in contact to discuss writing.

But not everyone agrees. Constance Weaver in her Teaching Grammar in Context argues, regarding the use of terminology and writing, “Introduce only a minimum of terminology, much of which can be learned sufficiently just through incidental exposure . . . . For many grammatical terms, receptive competence is all that’s needed: that is, students need to understand what the teacher is referring to, but they do not always need enough command of the terms to use such terms themselves” (144-45).

However, David Mulroy in his War Against Grammar responds to Weaver, stating, “The fact that people cannot use certain terms themselves is a clear sign that they do not fully understand them. If so, they are quite likely to misinterpret what other people mean by them. Teachers who aim at ‘receptive competence’ are disregarding a pedagogical principle [that] explanations work best when the terms employed are fully understood by all involved.”

As instructors, we will not be disappointed if we teach our students proper, subject-specific grammatical terminology. Consider this observation from Arthur Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, authors of Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education: “Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone—for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well-motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts” (4-5).

Developmental students may already feel stigmatized and discouraged over their placement in lower-level writing courses. Instead of adding to their feelings of inadequacy, we should inspire them. When we show we believe in their abilities, they rise to the level of expectation and, in turn, feel empowered.  And they will always appreciate our investment and belief in them as they continue their educational journey and encounter other instructors with whom they need to discuss writing.


Chickering, A. and Z.F. Gamson. Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. (1991). Print.

Mulroy, D. War Against Grammar. Boynton/Cook Heinemann. 2003. Print.

Weaver, C. Teaching Grammar in Context. Boynton/Cook Heinemann. 1996. Print.