Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

AWELL 2016: Keynote Address

AWELLConferenceRackCard2016_02Feb03_Page_1-1200x533I’m giving the keynote address on the opening day of the Academic Writing and English Language Learners (AWELL) conference being held at Saint Mary’s University tomorrow. It’s a really neat conference which brings together a range of people who deal with writing in the university environment: ESL/EAP instructors, writing support centre tutors and administrators, and faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Here’s the abstract:

What to correct? How to correct? Why to correct? Focus on Form with Multilingual Writers

In the teaching of writing to multilingual writers, the grammar correction debate rages on—should we be sticklers about the fine points of grammatical accuracy or overlook errors that don’t inhibit communication? A focus on form gives rise to questions about which linguistic standards to adhere to, how to approach form and grammar when giving feedback, and what our students even gain from it. This talk will offer a look at differing approaches to form and grammar in the teaching of academic writing to multilingual writers, as well as the history, politics, and preferences surrounding these practices.

Here are the slides: AWELL 2016 Presentation

 My talk puts the forward the proposition that we should see our role as language specialists rather than just writing specialists. We should move past whatever prescriptivist tendencies we may have and work to promote a socio-literate perspective on language form and use in our classrooms that better suits the linguistically diverse university environment in Canada today.