A taxonomy of comma splices

Working in academic ESL, I see all manner of comma splices – ones that immediately strike me as non-native, ones that seem to reflect English acquired via Facebook, and ones that could be made by professional writers. I’m 90% sure I saw some in the David Sedaris book I just finished, a COCA search finds a bunch under every genre (try the search terms “, _nn* [be] .”), and as a few survey respondents have pointed out, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities begins with a Guinness-worthy streak of them.

I set out trying to separate the types of comma splices I was seeing, assuming that they had some kind of logic to them. After all, all of the people I’ve seen splicing with commas know that periods (full stops) exist and are presumably using commas for some reason. What follows below is a list of the categories of comma splice that I saw with examples written by me, followed by the results of a survey I did in an attempt to figure out which type of comma splice is the least offensive. My Twitter followers are mostly language teachers (as are the LinkedIn groups that I posted the survey in), so their reactions ought to be interesting.

For the record, and just to show that I’m not just asking my Twitter followers to figure out what a comma splice is, a comma splice is two independent clauses separated by a comma and only a comma. Take out the comma and it’s a run-on, an error that probably deserves its own survey. You can fix comma splices in three ways:

  1. Add a conjunction (preferably and, so, or but – many teachers use the acronym FANBOYS, but honestly, how often do you see “for” as a conjunction?)
  2. Change the comma to a semicolon, or
  3. Change the comma to a period.

See? Here are the categories.

Elaborative comma splices

The price does not reflect the cost of production, it reflects supply and demand.

Similar to the corrective comma splices below, this type of comma splice seeks to add information to the previous independent clause, in this case by adding information. I flubbed the writing of this one a bit by leaving out the word “just”; feel free to ignore this item. Run your own survey if you like.

Explanatory comma splices

The chain went bankrupt, its sales had been falling for years.

Here, the independent clause after the comma explains the one before; it gives a reason. Anecdotally, these are very common among ELLs.

Juxtapositional comma splices

Dogs are descended from wolves, house cats came from feral cats.

Here, the comma separates two independent clauses that are meant as opposites of each other. In style manuals, cases like these would call for a coordinating conjunction like “but” or “yet”, or a subordinating conjunction like “while” or “although”. Many readers, not to mention writers, seem to find them unobjectionable with no conjunction at all.

Corrective comma splices

Richards was not the director, Denton was.

Here, the second clause supplies the correct information whose existence is implied in the first.

Incidentally, the range of relationships between clauses that one sees in comma splices makes one feel the poverty of meanings in the English palette of conjunctions, and particularly the coordinating conjunctions.

Chronological comma splices

The new phone model came out, planning for the next model began soon after.

In this comma splice, the connection between the clauses is chronological; the first precedes the second.

I may have tripped an additional wire in readers’ minds here by making the subject of the second clause a gerund, which could be interpreted as the start of a participial phrase, triggering a garden path (see below). This wouldn’t be a graceful participial phrase, but of course people don’t always respect “the rules” as those go either.

Non-sequitur comma splices

The air is thick with moisture, the office has a meeting at noon.

Not much to say except that this sentence was as unpopular as you might imagine.

Appositive comma spices

The article was written by Malcolm Gladwell, he is a Canadian journalist.

Here, the second clause also supplies more information about something in the first clause by defining a noun. I’m calling them appositive comma splices because without a subject or verb they would simply be appositive phrases.

Conjunctive adverb comma splices

There is a water shortage, therefore citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.

Here, the comma comes before a word with a similar meaning to a conjunction but in a different grammatical class. Called “linking words”, “transitions”, or “conjunctive adverbs” by writing teachers, these words most commonly come at the start of a complete sentence or between commas, as with some other adverbials, in the middle of an independent clause set apart by commas. To illustrate what I understand is the conventional usage of these words:

  • There is a water shortage. Therefore, citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.
  • There is a water shortage; therefore, citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.
  • There is a water shortage. Citizens, therefore, are being asked to take shorter showers.

As an academic writing teacher, my radar is always up for comma splices with these words (which we usually teach explicitly as a counterpart to coordinating and subordinating conjunctions), and to be honest I’m a bit disappointed that so many people disagree with me. Being a responsible writing teacher, though, I need to respect the vox populii. My job is not to make my ELLs the most comma splice-averse people on campus.

Quasi-participial phrase comma splices

The customers are waiting in line, they are holding their baskets.

Like the appositive comma splice above, the second independent clause could easily be reduced down to a familiar and well-accepted construction, the participial phrase.

(side note: I absolutely hate the term “reduced adjective clause” for participial phrases. I don’t think the term bootstraps learners’ understanding enough to justify the additional metalanguage and I don’t think it captures at all how fluent speakers think of them.)

Rephrasing comma splices

It is wasteful, it is inefficient.

Here, the second phrase is semantically very similar to the first. Anecdotally, I don’t see these very much in academic writing classes.

Garden path comma splices

The manager adjourned the meeting, switching off the projector caused the room to go dark.

This is the least comfortable for me to read, and is the reason that, if I remember correctly, Steven Pinker rejects any emails written with comma splices. Here, the comma splice encourages a misprediction by the reader as to how the sentence will proceed – the reader imagines that the manager adjourned the meeting by or while switching off the projector, only to trip over another finite verb in “caused”, which forces them to reappraise “switching” as a gerund instead of as a present participle, leading them up the garden path, so to speak.

Results

The above were presented to anyone who followed my link (mostly Twitter followers, who are mostly language teachers) with a 1-5 Likert-like scale of acceptability, 1=totally unacceptable, 3=don’t know/can’t decide, 5=totally acceptable. The following blurb was presented as well:

The following are all examples of comma splices. Please rate their acceptability as if you were a college writing teacher and they were produced by freshman writing students for a take-home writing assignment that has a grading rubric that includes grammatical accuracy.
For “totally unacceptable” answers, there would be a penalty in points for the error in question. For “totally acceptable” answers, the sentence in question could stand as an example of correct usage and could be recommended to other students.

46 people answered the survey, which again makes me wish I’d had Twitter when I was doing my MA research.

First major result

People vary widely in how they view the comma splices above. The mean score across all items was 2.33, slightly disapproving, and the mean standard deviation was 1.26. The median across all answers was 2 and the mode (most common answer) across all answers was 1.

Second major result

People who accept one of the sentences above tend to accept others as well; people who don’t don’t. All items are positively correlated with all other items, although some more than others. The average correlation of every item with every item (including itself) was 0.407.

Other results

Means

The mean scores were:

  1. The price does not reflect the cost of production, it reflects supply and demand. (elaborative, but reads like corrective) Mean: 3.20, Median 4, Stdev 1.55; notably correlated with #2 (explanatory) and #3 (juxtapositional) at about 0.51 each, and #4 (corrective) at 0.59. This is one of 3 of my sentences that scored above 3, i.e. more accepted than not. 2 of them, this one and #4, have the same “not A, B” structure (although I didn’t intend for this one to), making that an early candidate for a characteristic of “acceptable” comma splices. It is probably good news that these two are more correlated with each other than most.
  2. The chain went bankrupt, its sales had been falling for years. (explanatory) Mean 1.84, Median 2, Stdev 1.09; notably correlated with #1. Early on, when I only had about 20 respondents, this one was correlated with #5 (chronological), #7 (appositive), #9 (quasi-participial phrase), and #11 (garden path). I guessed that people who accept (or not) one type of comma splice tend to accept (or not) others as well, and these hills in the correlations might even out with more survey participants. It turns out that is what happened.
  3. Dogs are descended from wolves, house cats came from feral cats. (juxtapositional) Mean 2.40, Median 2, Stdev 1.48; notably correlated with #1. This one fell slightly under mean acceptability. I suppose it screams a bit too strongly for a semicolon.
  4. Richards was not the director, Denton was. (corrective) Mean 3.71, Median 4, Stdev 1.41; notably correlated with only #1, which shares its “not A, B” structure. This one had the highest score overall and was one of 3 (#1, this one, and #8) that had a mode of 5, “totally acceptable”.
  5. The new phone model came out, planning for the next model began soon after. (chronological) Mean 1.96, Median 2, Stdev 1.17; notably correlated with #6 at 0.654 (see below).
  6. The air is thick with moisture, the office has a meeting at noon. (non-sequitur) Mean 1.38, Median 1, Stdev 0.89; notably correlated with #5. This one had the lowest score, as one would expect. It seems that chronological comma splices are disapproved of by the same people who disapprove of comma splices whose clauses are completely unrelated.
  7. The article was written by Malcolm Gladwell, he is a Canadian journalist. (appositive) Mean 1.66, Median 1, Stdev 1.16; not notably correlated with any other item.
  8. There is a water shortage, therefore citizens are being asked to take shorter showers. (conjunctive adverb) Mean 3.25, Median 4, Stdev 1.60; notably correlated with #9 at 0.557. I’m not sure what makes people who accept this sentence also accept the next (and vice versa), as their clauses have very different relationships with each other. To me, this item is unique in that the relationship between the two clauses is actually transparent and given literally by a conjunction-like word (therefore). I don’t see a connection between this item and any other, but it seems that some people do.
  9. The customers are waiting in line, they are holding their baskets. (quasi-participial phrase) Mean 1.93, Median 2, Stdev 1.08; notably correlated with #8 (0.557) and #10 (0.516). Even more mysterious than the lack of relationship (at least to me) with these two items is the fact that this item is much less accepted than either of them.
  10. It is wasteful, it is inefficient. (rephrasing) Mean 2.68, Median 2, Stdev 1.55; notably correlated with #9. This is one where respondents might also be reacting to the redundancy in the two clauses. I said in my blurb to treat the assignment as a first-year college English assignment, and respodents might have struggled with thinking of a college writing assignment where saying the same thing twice, even with orthodox correct grammar, would be acceptable.
  11. The manager adjourned the meeting, switching off the projector caused the room to go dark. (garden path) Mean 1.57, Median 1, Stdev 0.93. I would actually be worried if this one were approved of by most people.

Last, the item with the highest average correlations with the other items overall is #3 (chronological) at 0.469, followed closely by #9 (quasi-partipial phrase) at 0.462. In a nutshell, if someone accepts #3 or #9, he or she will probably be willing to accept other comma splices too, and vice versa – someone who rejects #3 or #9 probably rejects others.

Unsurprisingly, a comma splice in which the two clauses appear to have nothing to do with one another (#6) strikes almost everyone as wrong. The fact that this one scored lower when all of them are “technically” wrong is interesting, showing that semantic or discursive rather than grammatical congruence determines acceptability for most people. As is the premise of this entire project, all of these are equally wrong for exactly the same reason, at least according to the rules of grammar most of us use when giving feedback on student writing. If my Twitter followers are a sign of the attitudes that most grammatically-minded people take toward comma splices, then corrective comma splices may be bordering on safe for beginning writing students, and at least some conjunctive adverbs like therefore might be heading toward acceptability in the grammatical role usually reserved for conjunctions.

Comments

There was a space at the end for respondents to leave qualitative comments on what makes a comma splice acceptable or not. Here are some of them:

It seems that if the topics of the two parts are more closely aligned the error doesn’t seem quite as wrong. [That’s probably exactly what my students think]

It seems to me like if the comma could be replaced by a semi-colon or a colon it “sounds” more acceptable.

Something about rhetorical effect and whether the subject has changed. Dickens and the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities set some kind of precedent of acceptability.

Most of them should just be periods; some could be semicolons. [When you do a survey of different sentences which make the same language-related mistake in different ways, you always get a few respondents who refuse to look past the issue that is the baseline for the entire exploration. Ah well, uncovering this attitude is part of the purpose of a survey like this]

I love them all

I wish there was a little more info on the type of assignment. Going by the statement that there’s a grammar rubric, I’m thinking it’s straight up conventional rules, and they’re all “wrong” in that case. If it was at all a creative writing assignment, I’d give some of the ones that imply a series more leeway, like the wasteful/inefficient one. I think even more so if there was a third clause: It is wasteful, it is inefficient, it is wrong. [A very useful point!]

Super interesting survey! They’re more acceptable when the second clause describes the first clause of adds more information, e.g., Gladwell question. [Interestingly, most respondents disagreed.]

These are all independent clauses [See above]

There were all unacceptable …

I guess it might sound more acceptable if the second sentence seemed to be tacked on as an afterthought, like in the Denton example.

Continuation of a idea- more like an a positive. Or listing.

I think if one of the clauses is made unequal either by shortening it or using a pronoun, a comma splice might be acceptable. For e.g. “dogs are descended from wolves, house cats from feral cats.” (But in this case would it still be a comma splice?) [Not according to my sense of grammar orthodoxy since the second phrase lacks a verb]

As with anything in language matters, conventions are merely an agreement of that languages speakers. They are subject to change with each generation. If a new generation agrees that they should change conventions, then the convention will be changed. It appears that normally 75% agreement is a threshold for introducing the new convention. It would seem to me that young writers at the threshold percentage have changed the convention of the use of the comma, especially in the case of what traditionalists now call comma splices. [Curious where the 75% number comes from]

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share these results over Thanksgiving dinner.

Participial adjectives and the nouns that love them

At the request of Mr. Mark Brierley after the last post on participial adjectives, I’ve tried to come up with a few tests of my ambiguously defined “association” between participial adjectives and the verbs that they bear some family relation to. These tests probably have very little validity (bearing in mind that I never really defined “close” to begin with), but they do come in legitimate-looking tables.

All of them here are variations on what I call the “shared subject/object” test. Basically, if a participial adjective like “interesting” often has the same subject that a verb like “interest” does, or a participial adjective like “interested” often has the same subject that a verb like “interest” takes as an object, we can call them “close”.

I only did these searches for 5 verb/adjective sets, because until my institution pays for BYU corpora membership, I can only do so many searches a day. Also, this many searches on the iWeb corpus is already quite unhealthy.

So first, some raw numbers.

verb subjpres adj subj
#pron#n%pron#pron#n%pron
excite155193862.31%17773340583.92%
annoy306947686.57%888547694.92%
overwhelm70474248.69%3517351350.03%
inspire10137534765.47%95590151.45%
amaze474436292.91%955593532573.01%

These are the numbers of subjects of these verbs and their present participial adjectives which are pronouns and nouns respectively, followed by the percent of the total number of subjects that are pronouns. As you can see, the verb “annoy” comes with a pronoun subject (usually “it”) 86.57% of the time, while the adjective “annoying” has a pronoun subject even more often (also usually “it”). I didn’t keep track of how many of these are the dummy “it” seen in sentences like “it annoys me that robo-callers always spoof numbers from your own area code”, but I suspect it is a lot.

Next we have the differences between those rates of pronoun subjects:

excite21.61%
annoy8.34%
overwhelm1.34%
inspire14.01%
amaze19.90%

According to this probably unscientific measure, the verb “overwhelm” is “closer” to its present participial adjective “overwhelming” than “excite” is to “exciting”.

Let’s make this a little easier to visualize. On this test of “closeness”, the rankings are:

Test #1 ranking
excite5
annoy2
overwhelm1
inspire3
amaze4

Here is the same data for past participial adjectives. Because past participial adjectives are related to the passive voice of transitive verbs (e.g. “it excites me” is similar in meaning to “I am excited” rather than “it is excited”), I compared the rates of pronouns as the objects of verbs rather than subjects.

verb objpast adj subj
#pron#n%pron#pron#n%pron
excite840776091.71%68728591392.08%
annoy891056994.00%320548386.90%
overwhelm168424187.48%6292396.47%
inspire248861071369.91%83512487.07%
amaze1169823798.01%39188318292.49%
excite0.37%
annoy7.09%
overwhelm8.99%
inspire17.16%
amaze5.52%

This time, “excite” seems “closer” to “excited” than “overwhelm” is to “overwhelmed”, but there is a problem that invalidates most if not all of what I think I can learn from this particular group of searches. The searches that I used to get these results were overwhelms _nn*, overwhelms _p*, _nn* [be] overwhelmed_j* and _p* [be] overwhelmed_j*. Do you see the problem? If you do, you probably use the BYU corpora as much as I do (seek help!). When you search for _nn* [be] overwhelmed_j*, you will get back a lot of noun phrases that happen to end with a noun, for example “the man in the back row was overwhelmed“, but not so for overwhelms _nn*, which requires the first word after “overwhelms” to be a noun to return anything. English noun phrases being what they are, a lot of perfectly good noun phrases that start with articles or adjectives are not being detected by my search. That is, “overwhelms people” comes back as a hit, but “overwhelms a person” does not. In short, my searches for the relative frequencies of subjects and objects are not very valid – at best they tell me that pronouns are fairly common (pronoun searches do not suffer from the problem above since they don’t follow articles or adjectives). The same search problem vitiates all of my verb/past participial adjective searches, so take them all with grains of salt. I’m not going to give rankings to these due to the Sochi-like untrustworthiness of the results.

Now for something a bit more concrete: What specifically are the nouns that come with these verbs and adjectives?

verb subj #1#2#3pres adj subj #1#2#3
excitelightworkenergyfuturelifehome
annoythingnoisevoicethingnoisevoice
overwhelmworldlovelifeevidenceresponseodds
inspirestoryworkmusicstorypassionwork
amazeloveplacethingfoodproductstuff

Here we see some interesting things – the top 3 subjects for both verbs and present participial adjectives are the same for “annoy”/”annoying”, and 2 of the three are the same for “inspire”/”inspiring”. Here is an update ranking of “closeness”:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 ranking
excite53 (tie)
annoy21
overwhelm13 (tie)
inspire32
amaze43 (tie)

verb obj #1#2#3past adj subj #1#2#3
excitepeople electronsstudentsteampeoplecompany
annoypeople usersotherspeoplefansothers
overwhelmpeople studentsvisitorsheartsystemclinics
inspirepeople confidenceotherspostporkowl-ways
amazepeople visitorsaudiencespeopledoctorskids

First of all, the #1 object for all of the verbs is “people”, as in “it excites people” or “it inspires people”. There is more variety in the subjects of past participial adjectives, but 2 of the top hits are still “people” – “people are annoyed” and “people are amazed”. The objects suffer from the same validity problem outlined earlier, so take this with even more salt, but we can say at least that “people” is a common object for verbs whose past participial adjective counterparts have the subject “people”.

Last but not least, the #1 hits as a percent of the total hits. The first column is the #1 subject for the verb as a % of the hits for that verb, and the second column is the #1 subject for that adjective as % of the hits for that verb. The 3rd column is the 1st divided by the 2nd – the closer to 1 that number is, the more similar the proportion of those two words in the hits.

verb subj #1 as % of totalpres part adj #1 as % of totalratiopres adj subjverb subj as % of totalratio
excite0.0460.0143.2950.0370.00162.500
annoy0.1030.1031.0000.0880.0881.000
overwhelm0.0420.0049.6670.2190.00635.000
inspire0.0570.0590.9680.1590.1591.000
amaze0.0300.0083.6670.0710.00327.648

Based on the above, “annoy” and “annoying” are quite “close”, but “overwhelm” and “overwhelming” are not. This is the last test to count toward official rankings:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 rankingTest #3 ranking
excite53 (tie)4
annoy211
overwhelm13 (tie)5
inspire322
amaze43 (tie)3

That gives us an idea of which of the verb/present participial adjective pairs is “closest” according to all of the tests I ran. But first, the same results for verbs/past participial adjectives:

verb obj #1 as % of total past part adj #1 as % of total #1 as % of total past adj subjverb obj #1 as % of totaltotal nouns
excite0.1600.00360.3770.1600.0632.534
annoy0.4650.4651.0000.2960.2961.000
overwhelm0.2860.000Div 00.1300.0433.000
inspire0.1490.000Div 00.0410.000Div 0
amaze0.2570.2571.0000.2260.2261.000

Likewise for verbs and past participial adjectives – “annoy” and “inspire” are closer to “annoyed” and “inspired” than “overwhelm” is to “overwhelmed”.

So to close this post, here are the final overall rankings for “closeness” of verbs and present participial adjectives:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 rankingTest #3 rankingOverall
excite53 (tie)45
annoy2111
overwhelm13 (tie)53
inspire3222
amaze43 (tie)34

“Annoy” is the clear winner, followed not too distantly by “inspire”.

Since I still have the data that I used in the last post, I can tell you that these rankings correlate with the % of uses that were verbs at -0.51 (that is, numerically higher rankings, i.e. 4 and 5, tended to be used as verbs less than as adjectives). That says to me that the words that have a fully established independent life as adjectives tend to have less in common collocation-wise with their verb parents. This makes sense – the average child hears the adjective “exciting” applied to all kinds of activities before he ever learns that light “excites” electrons and has to form the relationship between those two words post hoc. I guess, although I don’t know, that “inspire” and “inspiring” might tend to be acquired much closer to the same time in a child’s life and in more similar situations.

As always, further research is required! Who has a paid BYU corpora membership?

The black box of take-home writing

This semester I’m trying something new in my writing classes: trying to eliminate the interference of “writing enhancement” software, along with all other potential sources of noise between the students’ brains and the page, from my take-home essays. This is because as an ESL teacher, I need to maintain the validity of the “grammar” scores on writing assignments that I give, assuming that I need grammar scores at all, and of course I need to know that whatever students are turning in is a product of their own thought processes. To that end, I’m changing the planning and drafting processes and part of my grading rubrics.

For comparison, the writing process that I used to use looked like this:

  1. Outline: 5 points in the “homework” grade category
  2. Draft 1: 1 point of the total essay score
    1. typed or handwritten at home
    2. Peer-reviewed only
  3. Draft 2: 9 points of the total essay score
    1. typed
    2. Gets detailed feedback on content, structure, and grammar from me
  4. Final draft: 90 points of the total essay score

And a typical rubric for the final draft looked like this (initially adapted from a few coworkers’ rubrics):

Content


10
The essay has a well-focused thesis.

15The writer supports this thesis in the body paragraphs.

15Sources are utilized well and integrated into the argument.

40Total for content
Organization

5The introduction paragraph(s) captures the reader’s attention and introduces the sources and background enough so that the thesis is understandable to a unknown reader.

15The body paragraphs show clear and effective organization, and have clear idea progression and relationship between paragraphs. The point of each body paragraph is always clear.

5The concluding paragraph readdresses the thesis nicely, does not exactly repeat it, and gives the reader a reason to care.

25Total for organization
Grammar/Language

20The essay has sophisticated, well-chosen sentence structures. The language errors do not interfere with communication. In particular, there should be no errors with noun clauses, comma splices/run-on sentences, hedging, or hypotheticals.

20Total for grammar/language
Format/Writing Process

5Effective use of MLA format including a Work Cited Page.

5Total for format & writing process.


90

Total points

The problems with this approach were 1) a lot of more feedback was given than was actually used for revision, 2) the first draft scores (out of 1) were consistently found to be very predictive of final course grades but were worth very little on their own and 3) I could not tell when the grammar scores I was giving were valid and when I was basically giving Google Translate an A.

Outside of our classrooms, an arms race is being waged between smarter and harder-to-detect ways of generating papers through AI on one side and software designed to detect plagiarism on the other. Copying and pasting still happens (and is the easiest to catch, even without Turnitin.com), but a minimally savvy plagiarist can direct a writing “assistant” generate an essay (Google “generate essays” for examples) or a summary, as I found on a recent podcast episode. At least for the moment, automatic plagiarism-checking software doesn’t catch AI-generated text, whether it comes from Google Translate or Ultron. An add-on to Chrome called Draftback can play back each keystroke in the creation of an essay (or any other Google Doc), potentially catching copying and pasting from AI sources (as copied and pasted text appears all at once as opposed to one letter at a time), but can’t tell who’s sitting in the chair typing text that is entered manually. When I see grammaticality, vocabulary and idiomaticity that is conspicuously improved, I have no way of knowing whether it comes from hard work and scrupulous proofreading or from the magic of smartphones:

I thought English/ESL departments might be some of the first to notice the black box of take-home writing, but others are even more on the cliff’s edge. The transition described in this post was also partly spurred by a conversation that I had in the adjunct work room at one of my community colleges in California, in which a Philosophy professor decried the amount of plagiarism going on in his and others’ classes and told me that he had on good word that UCLA’s Philosophy department no longer gave take-home writing at all. There is, after all, several hundred years’ worth of plagiarizable text on Plato’s Cave.

At my new job I’ve had the chance to talk to a few professors in different departments, and when it comes up, I’m often surprised at how large a portion of their writing assignments has also moved from students’ homes on the weekend to labs on campus during class hours. The reasons stated are usually a combination of wanting to help the students build good writing habits more actively and also simply having no ability to trust what you are getting when an assignment leaves your classroom doors. Some have also said that they dislike the for-profit model of services like Turnitin and Unicheck as well as the message of distrust that they send to students, preferring to keep writing to class hours where at least the pretense of benevolent watchfulness instead of red-pen-policing can be maintained.

I realized that there was a way to kill all of these birds with one stone as well as emphasize the “ideas” part of essays by radically changing my writing process.

The new process looks like this for a non-research essay based on a book or article:

  1. Outline: 10 points of the total essay score
    1. Peer review and instructor feedback on the outline
    2. Done in Google Classroom
    3. Many activities to build robust outlines before Draft 1
  2. Draft 1: 30 points of the total essay score
    1. In-class in a computer lab with only the outline and one page of notes (the outline has whatever quotes they’ve chosen to use)
    2. Typed into the same document as the outline with no other websites or software allowed
    3. Peer review and instructor feedback
      1. Grammar feedback is only on the first 2 paragraphs, and after that only in the form of the COCA tag
      2. All other feedback is on higher-order issues
  3. Draft 2: 60 points of the total essay score
    1. Revised at home and turned in
    2. Accompanied by separate grammar assignments based on Draft 1

What has changed is that:

  • weights for all 3 parts of the writing process are distributed more equally
  • only Draft 1 has a grammar score
  • Draft 2 has grammar assignments in place of a grammar score
  • There are only 2 drafts

Both Drafts 1 and 2 have most of their points given to Content, a bit less for Structure, and a tiny bit for Format/Mechanics. Overall, compared to my old writing process and rubric, more time and more points are given to Content.

(I should also point out that I’m working with a shorter time limit now than I used to – 7-week terms instead of 16-week semesters. Still, I think the important parts don’t suffer much from the eliding of one draft.)

The grammar assignments that I give now in place of a grammar score for Draft 2 are all COCA-derived, and students use my COCA tags in their Draft 1 to know what to look up. This was actually the topic of a talk I gave at ITESOL last month (titled “Using COCA to Simplify Your Correction Codes”), and even if I find reasons to change the 2-draft model outlined above, I will almost certainly be keeping COCA in place of grammar on my rubrics. The assignments are short but open-ended in both the problem (something from their Draft 1) and the solutions.

In addition to changing the process, I try to have prompts that discourage ghostwriting or copying – a combination of new or unusual source texts (Digital Minimalism being a recent example), personalization (the DM essay required screenshots from the students’ own smartphones), and just topics that students want to write about (again, smartphones).

A lot of my former and current colleagues have described moving to a “studio” model of teaching academic writing – lab co-reqs at my last community college, 5-unit plus-sized courses at my current one. Who knows how the proliferation of text-generating technology will affect the “academic essay” in future writing classes?

I joke about this in class, but it’s probably not too far off that we’ll be asking students to turn off their retinal implants before doing anything in class (or generating class content by AI ourselves).