August 03, 2004

Grammar and essay grading

The Wall Street Journal (print edition, Monday, August 2, 2004; page B1) carries an article by June Kronholz about the training of essay graders for the new ACT college entrance exam. The writing component is to be added next February. Essays will be scored on a six-point scale for such subjective elements as voice, style, flow, and deployment of the language. But it emerges that ACT Inc. does not plan to treat grammaticality as decisive. Organization and originality will trump mere syntax. In one training session for scorers, even "two paragraphs that were barely readable through the misspellings, twisted syntax, and bad grammar ... weren't enough to lower a score" in an essay that "offered a reason to support its point of view", Kronholz reports.

My view (and it may seem odd to you to hear this from an avowed grammarian who loves to see the language used accurately) is that this is all just as well. The grasp that even well-educated people have of what it means to have twisted syntax or bad grammar is so tenuous, and the misinformation and downright outrageous nonsense so widespread, that I would rather trust ACT's scorers to evaluate argumentational coherence and rhetorical effectiveness than to judge grammar. As we have noted so many times on Language Log, educated Americans hardly even know what grammar is. Tell scorers to deduct one percent for each grammar error, and they'll soon be penalizing stranded prepositions and banning genitive antecedents and condemning split infinitives and insisting on whom and following Spiderman in calling for grotesqueries like "He's no bigger than we", and all the other familiar old nonsense on which college aptitude certainly does not depend.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 3, 2004 03:54 PM