At a restaurant recently, I overheard part of the conversation at an adjoining table. A man with a stentorian voice was complaining about one of his co-workers. “And the worse part,” the man boomed, “is that this guy constantly tries to take credit for my ideas, which you know is one of my pet peeves.”
My first reaction when I hear a pet peeve is one of skepticism. Is the co-worker always guilty of thievery? Does the man really have ideas so good they are worth stealing? And why does he think others want to hear about the trivial matters he finds irritating? Methinks Mr. Stentor doth protest too much.
The “pet peeve” approach to writing
I’ve known quite a few writing instructors over the years who wear their pet peeves like a badge of honor. An irksome mistake for one teacher might be the confusion of its and it’s. For another, a split infinitive frays the nerves. I recall that my 7th-grade English teacher (Mrs. D, we called her) unveiled a new grammatical pet peeve almost every day, setting up a grammar gauntlet for her students.
In my mind, identifying pet peeves says more about the peeved than the peeve itself. The rhetorician Robert J. Connors once described grammar as “various bodies of knowledge and prejudice.” Yes, we need to continue teaching principles of correct grammar and effective writing; no educated person should think that “between you and I” is evidence of heightened literacy. But writing instructors surely do students no favors when they make instruction punitive, pushing the false idea that good writing happens only when students avoid violating any of the rather boorish peeves the teacher brandishes. There’s something unseemly about this scenario: the teacher as the mighty guardian of the language, the student as the potential perpetrator. Maybe that’s why I was terrified of Mrs. D.
Research bears this out. In “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” Michelle Navarre Cleary reviewed decades of grammar research and concluded that traditional approaches to teaching grammar “don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers.” What we’ve learned, she says, is that students learn grammar only when we allow them to write: “We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing… .”
Opportunities, not violations
And that’s why the instructional approach we take with Writing Reviser is built not on preventing students from becoming language violators but on helping them look for opportunities for improvement. The feedback we give students—on their own work, by the way—seldom points out mistakes in their writing. Instead, through highlighted text, statistics, graphic displays, and relevant instruction—all powered by artificial intelligence, we help students see (re-vision) what they have done in their writing and offer the guidance necessary to revise and improve it.
Passive or active?
For example, Writing Reviser highlights all examples of passive voice. Note that each of these two sentences has a passive verb.
The intent here is not to point out a mistake. Instead, the highlight shows that the verbs are passive and that the writer needs to make a judgment about whether either should be made active. In these examples, we explain that the active voice works best for the first sentence, and the passive works well in the second because the college application is more important than the person or office that returned it. In both sentences, the writer uses a passive verb. Only one sentence needs revision to improve it.
Citing passive voice as an error before revision begins allows little or no room for students to make these types of decisions.
You might be thinking that listening to pet peeves is … well, my pet peeve. Fair enough. But I am convinced that only through helping students see opportunities will they begin thinking like the writers we want them to be.