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The Grammar Question

“Did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the ‘corruption’ and ‘permissiveness’ of certain liberal dictionaries?” (David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” Consider the Lobster. Back Bay Books, 2006. p. 67). Linguistic conservatives are formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists. Prescriptivists subscribe to ‘correct,’ rule-bound usage, while Descriptivists argue that correctness rests upon usage, which is relative.

Wilson Housen ’19 (left) and Sean Xu ’20 (right) discuss a piece of creative writing.

In the Writing Center, we are happy to focus on sentence-level issues during your consultation. We know that proofreading your own writing is a difficult task. How can you catch your own mistakes if you don’t know where you’ve gone astray? Also, what is a mistake, anyway? And according to whom? Usage debates aside, peer-consultants in the Writing Center want to help you write sentences that say what you mean in the way you want to say it. Above all, we want you to leave a consultation confident that you’ve expressed your idea in the most appropriate and effective way possible for the purpose and audience of your work.

If you bring in a paper and tell us that you want to work on grammar and mechanical issues, we’ll read through the text alongside you (sometimes aloud) to identify any usage errors we encounter. Because it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to work through an entire paper over the course of only 45 minutes, we’ll probably focus on a few paragraphs or a single page during a session aimed at sentence-level issues. Additionally, we may not identify nor correct all of the usage errors we encounter as it’s best to focus on those issues that occur more than once in your text. This way, we’ll address the most troubling and persistent issues first, and by isolating patterns, you’ll learn to recognize them yourself much faster. During this sort of work, we may come upon a sentence that just doesn’t sound right. It’s possible we won’t be able to quickly explain to you the underlying rule or concept that would allow you to revise. In these instances, we may together consult a writing handbook or draft some options for rewriting the sentence. In any case, you can expect us to ask you questions about your ideas that you want to get across so that we can discuss the various ways of restructuring a sentence to have different effects on your reader.

Recommended Resources:

  • Grammarly makes sure everything you type is clear, effective, and mistake-free
  • Going to the Source: A Guide to Academic Integrity and Attribution at Vassar College
  • The MLA Style Center: writing resources from the Modern Langauge Association
  • RefWorks: a citation manager with access and support provided by the Vassar Library
To make an appointment, please visit WCOnline