The Anti-Handbook Writing Handbook

New book by longtime composition instructor seeks to use real-world sentences to change the way students think about grammar.

April 14, 2015

Frank L. Cioffi taught his first college composition course in 1977. Since then, he’s read student writing at elite private colleges and urban public universities. He’s taught Comp 1 and advanced literature.

Over those years, hundreds of grammar textbooks and writing stylebooks have passed through Cioffi’s hands.

He’s seen the good, the bad and the no longer in circulation. Regardless of the structure, publisher or year, Cioffi felt there was a common thread in the books. 

They all sort of stank. There was something missing, a kind of disconnect between the simplistic sentences in the grammar books and real, live language.

So Cioffi, who directs the writing program at Baruch College at the City University of New York, decided to create his own grammar handbook. It’s one that his publisher describes as an “anti-handbook” handbook, a different kind of tool to offer to introductory composition students.

The book, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook (Princeton University Press), was released last month. Cioffi used more than 300 sentences, all printed in newspapers and magazines that were published on a single day, to delve into the construction of English sentences.

He spent two months reading through titles from Dec. 29, 2008. At first, he didn’t even know if it would pan out. He had only a hunch that professional writers and editors would make mistakes with grammar just as college writing students do.

His hunch proved true, and he’s able to explain passive and active voice, subject-verb agreement, pronouns, punctuation and dozens of other laws of English language through these example sentences. And he lets readers know which publications (many of them prominent) published the errors.

The book is conversational, but also quite literal at times, spending several pages on a deep dive into small specifics of grammar, such as appositives and gerunds. Often, the sentences aren’t perfect examples of grammatical principles, with mistakes so egregious that they jump out at the reader. They take time for reflection, and that’s the point.  

Real-world language is often “muzzy” and “caliginous,” Cioffi writes.

“But the goal isn’t to make you a pedantic nitpicker; instead, it’s to help you see and internalize the patterns of the English language,” he writes.

As a result, Cioffi doesn’t come across in the book as the teacher with all the answers. Instead, he poses questions to the reader about the best usage and sometimes settles in a gray area where he thinks more than one version could work.

He recognizes that language evolves and may fluctuate based on the context. He also debunks certain rules, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting infinitives.

Yet despite the anti-handbook handbook tagline, he’s by no means in favor of throwing all the rules out the window.

Cioffi doesn’t think those rules should be taught by assignments from a textbook, though, because rote memorization isn't the best way to learn the complexities of the English language.

For example, when Cioffi handed out work sheets in class and asked students to find and correct mistakes such as comma splices, they were relatively successful. Then they’d write an essay and make the very mistakes they'd just corrected.  

He began to realize that the sample sentences were so spare and simple that while they demonstrated the grammatical principle, they didn't have any long-term effect on students' grasp of grammar. They were bland -- absent any excitement or drama -- and rarely illustrated language that’s used every day.

“That makes grammar disembodied or disconnected from the actual world,” Cioffi said.

Darsie Bowden, an English professor at DePaul University, agrees that work sheets to memorize grammar rules aren’t an effective form of teaching. Research actually suggests that learning the rules of grammar isn’t the most effective way to learn how to write correctly, she said.

Bowden prefers a process in which students learn grammar through writing and revising, she said. For experienced writers, the process flows as one: ideas, vocabulary, syntax and style. But for novice writers, worrying about the micromechanics of English can get in the way of putting their ideas on the paper. For them, it’s easier if grammar comes later in the process.   

A grammar handbook can be useful, but only after students understand that there are different genres within English, Bowden said. In other words, the rules sometimes depend on where you are and whom you’re talking to.

“Students need to learn how to be flexible and understand what’s appropriate for any given situation,” Bowden said.

That idea -- known as code-switching -- is the basis for how Sharon Saylors approaches grammar with her students, too. She wants them to see language as a continuum and grammar as a path to more creative and critical thinking.

Saylors, copresident of the Assembly for Teaching of English Grammar within the National Council of Teachers of English, has been teaching composition courses at Prince George’s Community College for 20 years. When she does go over the rules, she does it with active, hands-on lessons, and she tries to explain the reasons behind the rules, so students actually understand the rules rather than memorizing them.

Cioffi hopes his book will change the way people think about teaching writing and help to demystify grammar for those instructors outside of English courses who are hesitant to assign writing projects.

He also hopes it helps readers recognize that grammar matters. Knowing how to communicate effectively helps society run more smoothly, he argues. 

Toward the end of the book, Cioffi references a work by Agnes Denes titled “Human Dust” that describes a man's depressing, unfulfilling life. There’s one line in particular that always moved Cioffi: He “was misunderstood 3,800 times when it mattered.”

Human beings have a fundamental desire to be understood, Cioffi writes. There are few things as discouraging as feeling as if you’re failing at that, especially when it matters.


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