Office of Public Affairs

Nancy Gish and the Importance of Sentence Level Writing

by Amanda Pleau, USM Office of Public Affairs Intern

If you think learning about grammar is boring, you’ve obviously never taken USM Professor of English Nancy Gish’s course, “Rhetoric, Syntax and Style.” Nancy Gish is one of the most passionate, outspoken people you’ll ever meet. “How can you make it boring?” she asks. “It’s fascinating by definition.”

Gish is right, judging by the line of students waiting to get into the course, which focuses on sentence-level writing, including grammar.  “I always have a long waiting list. Students plead with me to get in; they are dying to know it.”

“Grammar used to be taught in a way that took a fascinating thing and made it boring.” Students were given sentences written by someone else in an exercise manual or on a chalkboard, and then asked to correct or fix them. According to Gish, that kind of teaching starts on the wrong end and is, in fact, boring.

Instead, Gish instructs her students to think about the relationship of the sentence parts intellectually, theoretically, and then generate their own “correct” sentences. The so-called “rules” are integrated in what they write. Then all the patterns on a page of writing become, in Gish’s words, like director’s cues or musician’s notes­­­­. Everything on the page is as symbolic as a word: a comma, a semi-colon, a white space, a capital.

Upon completion of the course, students say they wish they’d known these things from the beginning. “If syntax is the way we make meaning,” explains Gish, “then it’s the most important component, and unfortunately, it’s the one that is never taught.”

In case you’re not one of the privileged 15 students who make it into the course each semester, do not feel hopeless. In addition to increasing the amount of time you spend reading and practicing your writing, Gish recommends ways to improve your writing right now. Primarily, she points to the pitfalls of composing on a computer.

“I sometimes have students come into my office and I sit them down and say, ‘Okay, read that sentence that you wrote.’ Last spring, a student was halfway through her own sentence and looked at me and said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’  I said, ‘Yes, I know.’”

“You can produce on a computer keyboard very fast,” says Gish. “If you type faster than you think, your hand and mind are not in sync. Additionally, what you see on the computer screen is not exactly what you see in print. So if you think you can edit by looking at the screen, you’re mistaken.” Gish recommends printing the first draft and editing the paper copy; read it out loud.

Gish also has a disdain for grammar check and tells all of her students to turn it off. “I don’t know what it does. All I know is that when my students rely on it, it produces a mass of grammatical errors. The computer is a binary system, the mind is not.”

In higher education, people often talk about learning to write and writing to learn. Learning to write means learning formats, structures and conventions. Writing to learn means that the way we understand things is by writing, and to do that, students depend on being able to write clear, fluent sentences in order to succeed in college. 

If this information comes across as overwhelming, Gish has some advice. “There is not a reason to be scared because you already know so much more than you realize,” Gish reveals. “You just don’t know that you do. I teach my students how to access what they know.”

For more of Gish’s advice on writing and use of grammar, check out her videos at Navigating the Real World.