An End to Proofreading (once and for all)

In Grammar on November 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

Photo by Bichuas (E. Carton) -- Thank you!

The trick with working on grammar is not to get a good proofreader who can catch every single mistake. It’s not to go over your paper 57 times until you’ve caught each punctuation mark that’s out of place. I’m going to say something that’s going to sound shocking, especially coming from an English teacher. Learning grammar is not about learning perfection. It’s about establishing good grammatical habits.

Let me tell you about the one time I took a dance class. I’m not a very tall lady, and I thought taking a ballet class would help me get good posture — and maybe even help me make the most of all 5 feet of my height. I found an adult beginner’s ballet class in town, and I signed up. The first day, I arrived in class, ready to soak up the knowledge and learn how to move gracefully. When I arrived, though, it was clear that the other “beginners” weren’t quite as beginner as I was. They had all the cool gear: the fancy ballet shoes with ribbons, those special little skirts that dancers wear on TV. My shorts and T-shirt looked a bit silly in comparison. Once we started dancing, it was obvious. I had no natural talent for this stuff. While the other students gracefully moved about on the floor, I jerked left and right, just trying to figure out how everyone else knew which direction to go. The teacher quickly learned who I was, and she started giving me lots of advice, all at once: “Kathryn, don’t forget to point your toe. Keep your arms relaxed and open. Keep your leg straight. Don’t bite your lip. Smile, Kathryn!” Of course, once I started trying to follow her directions, things got worse. While I tried to smile and point my toe, I ended up going in the wrong direction and falling down. Not a good start!

The problem was that I was concentrating on too many things at once, so I could never really focus on any of them.

This happens all the time when students try to improve grammar. You’ll be working on getting your verbs in the right form, figuring out articles and prepositions while trying to adjust your sentence structure and improve vocabulary. When you try to work on all of these tasks at once, you end up remembering nothing, and your habits don’t change. This means that, every time you write a paper, you have to go through drafts and drafts of revisions for your grammar — every single time. It’s exhausting!

The solution is to focus on one grammatical problem (strategically chosen), and work on learning how to improve this one thing. Then, practice the new grammatical habit over and over until it comes naturally — until you no longer need to think about it. Once your new habit has been established, you can focus on a new habit. In this way, over time, you’ll have less detailed proofreading to do, because you’ll be automatically using good grammar. It’s more work upfront but a lot less work in the long run.


While I still like the idea of having a dedicated social network for international students studying in the United States, it’s been difficult getting enough students to join to have lively conversations. As we continue to build the network, I’d also like to use Facebook. We now have a Student in the States Facebook page, where I post regular updates, along with quick writing and grammar tips. Either add me as your Facebook friend or do a search for Student in the States to join our fan page.


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