My name is Mark, and I’m a spelling and grammar Nazi.
If you write there when you mean they’re, let’s be honest: I’m judging you. On the other hand, if you use a semicolon correctly, I instantly figure you’re probably a person I’d like to get to know better.
This personality trait of mine frequently comes to the forefront as I teach third-graders to write. I try to appreciate students’ written work, but I find myself blinded by their run-ons, fragments, spelling errors, forgotten capital letters, extra capital letters, and various punctuation problems.
“Start sentences with a capital letter!” I preach. “Don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘because!’ Proper nouns get capitalized! Did you remember to indent your topic sentence?”
Sometimes it gets a little desperate: “If I see the word I written with a lowercase letter one more time, I’m going to cry! Do you really want to make me cry?”
The students work hard to make improvements — they gradually get better at editing their work, they learn to use various tools (both online and offline) to improve their spelling, and they generally do start punctuating and capitalizing things more correctly as the year goes on. Some of them even use a semicolon correctly at some point during the school year, and I smile.
But then I started thinking about the things that I love to read, as well as the things that resonate with others. I just finished Choose Yourself by James Altucher, and it read like a schizophrenic joyride, trampling the rules of grammar with nearly every sentence (or, rather, fragment). Yet I couldn’t put it down. Jen Hatmaker got featured on the Today show for this end-of-school-year blog post, a fragment-filled, random-capital barrage that is so hilarious that over a third of a million people have shared it on Facebook.
My students have noticed this as well: “Mr. Pullen, look! This author started a sentence with the word ‘and’!” and “Why does this best-selling novel have lots of sentence fragments in it?”
I think it’s time for me to admit the truth: what really makes writing great isn’t perfect adherence to the laws of grammar. It isn’t perfect punctuation, flawless spelling, or correct capitalization. It’s voice. Great writers write with a voice that draws you in and keeps you hooked.
It’s time for me to shift my attention to the actual content of what my students are writing about. Can I feel their passion in their writing? Do they write something in a way that builds suspense or makes me laugh? Do they keep me wanting to read more?
I’m not promising to quit worrying about spelling, punctuation, or capitalization entirely. After all, grammar Nazi-ism doesn’t go away overnight. But I am going to focus more of my energy on teaching my students to write with voice.
I’ll let them know that although good writers follow all of the “proper” rules, great writers know the rules and then purposely break them to create a certain effect. I’ll make sure that they know that even though computers will be grading their writing on our standardized tests (which, of course, kills me a little inside), real writing is meant to have an impact on people.
And so we’ll focus on what kind of impact their writing can make… not on whether or not they started any sentences with and.