One of the few bright spots in the current political turbulence is the way misplaced modifier production has ramped up. I collect those that amuse me and often have students attempt to figure out what the writer intended to say, where the writer messed up, and, if possible, revise the sentence to fix the problem.
Here are three that other teachers might want to have their students attempt to untangle:
“Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.”
“After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.”
“While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday.”
However, most people would be hard-pressed to identify precisely which rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage must be followed in writing and speaking or which words must be spelled correctly for the writing to be "good English."
Many times correctness is more a matter of appropriateness than of compliance with a grammar rules: If the audience readily understands the message and are not offended by the language in which it is presented, that message is correct enough.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is hard to know what is appropriate.
Many times an audience is global rather than local.
Many times writers/speakers do not know who their audience is.
Many audiences do not know how to access—or do not have access to—references to help them interpret non-standard language such as abbreviations, idioms, and jargon.
In a global economy, our students will have to work with many people who will not understand the breezy, informal, idiomatic, and often sloppy language use that characterizes American culture.
Living in a global society, we must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of correctness, much closer to textbook rules, than we might have demanded in their speech and writing 10 years ago.
Fortunately, we do not have to teach (or know) all the rules for comma placement. We do need to know and teach those rules that, if violated, are most likely to impede communication of a message.
Research into the writing people do reveals a high concentration of a very few errors. (See Connors and Lunsford, Lunsford and Lunsford, for example.) Most writers’ repeated errors are violations of rules taught in elementary school, such as confusing its and it’s or failing to mark the boundaries of a sentence with a capital letter and closing punctuation.
We must teach those few rules thoroughly, until they are as much a part of our students’ mental processes as their elbows are parts of their bodies.
Bottom line: To equip students to live in a global society, we can teach fewer rules of "good English" but must teach those few far more thoroughly than ever before.
You can use native English speakers’ ability to hear errors to help them identify potential grammar problem areas in their writing, such as run-together sentences.
Using students to give feedback about their writing is a powerful way to develop students’ skills while reducing your workload.
Simple two-step process
1. With students working in pairs, the author reads his/her work aloud while the other listens.
Why it helps: Slowing down to read aloud may be enough for the author to spot grammatical errors that the author doesn’t see when reading silently.
2. For a second check, the listener reads the work aloud to its author.
Why it helps: The person who didn’t write the paper is far more likely to read sentences as written instead of the way the author intended.
Why it helps: Hearing the paper read by someone else is more likely to reveal to the writer problems he/she corrected mentally but still needs to correct on paper.
During the second reading, students may want to stop at the end of every paragraph, or more often, to see if either questions something that they read. A penciled question mark in the margin (or highlighting on the computer screen) is all that is necessary to help the author remember to check that sentence later.
Tips for trying the technique
Although most strategies I recommend are geared toward teaching teens and adults, this activity can be done with students as young as fourth or fifth grade.
For the activity to work, students need to be fairly well matched in respect to their reading and writing skills.
Also, the reading order is important. The author gets the chance to identify needed changes before the partner can note them. If the listener has reading difficulties, reading second lets him anticipate words s/he will see in the reading.
Read aloud pairs is not a peer editing activityper se. The point is to get the author to focus on the words s/he put on the page.