Most English teachers have heard about how poorly students apply the grammar “rules” we teach them to their own writing. It seems we can explain what nouns and adjectives are and show them what a prepositional phrase is or what a subordinating conjunction does, but struggling students rarely show much mastery of these concepts in their own writing.
Much of the problem comes from the complexity of the language itself. Many students run into confusion with some of the core grammatical concepts, such as the difference between a noun and a subject, which, in many students’ minds, are the same thing. Or they have a hard time understanding how helping verbs or linking verbs work. All verbs, in their minds, are actions.
The funny thing is that good writers do not worry too much about making grammatical errors and are usually only somewhat fluent in the language of grammar themselves. Good writers seem to write more fluidly than struggling writers do and provide greater detail in their writing, but I do not think this ease with words comes from a dexterity with grammatical rules. If it did, linguists would be the finest writers around.
Instead I think good writers have a basic understanding of grammatical principles that keeps their anxiety down, but they also have a mastery of phrases and clauses. You do not need to be a grammarian or a linguist in training to write well, but you do need to be able to avoid common mistakes and know that certain “rules” are nothing more than silliness (i.e. put a comma wherever there is a pause).
Many struggling writers become frustrated with their own writing because they worry about things they should not be worried about and cannot focus on more important matters. They also tend to focus on the words they are using rather than the phrases and clauses they are constructing. This might explain why struggling writers often think a comma is always needed before the word “and.”
We have all seen struggling writers use short sentences. They often tell me that they do this only because they tend to make fewer errors that way, but I also see that they are not aware of the many ways their writing can be revised and rewritten by reworking the phrases and clauses. In fact, they usually cannot even see the phrases and clauses that make up their own writing. It is all word after word after word to them.
When teaching grammar and writing, I do not think our goal should be simple mastery of the “rules.” Most teachers know that drilling grammar rules into the heads of students is not a good use of class time. But we should also not think that grammar instruction is a waste of time. Good grammar instruction gives students more confidence in their own writing but it also allows them to avoid falling victim to misleading or useless “rules.” They need to see that having some understanding of grammar allows them to develop their skills as writers in ways that move them beyond writing word by word.