Why do so many students confuse good writing with simply error-free writing, and what can writing instructors do about it? In order to answer this question, the present study first undertakes an exploration of the different meanings associated with grammar and how those definitions have influenced composition instruction. These influences range from an over-emphasis on grammar in the first half of the twentieth century to allowing it to disappear almost completely from the composition curriculum in the second half of the century. However, because research demonstrates that students over this same time period make errors in writing at a fairly constant rate, the present study investigated how writing instructors might target their teaching in order to strategically eliminate or decrease error from student writing while still maintaining composition classes focused on writing rather than grammar. A survey of frequent errors was constructed based on findings from Connors & Lunsford's 1988 study and Lunsford & Lunsford's 2008 study of error frequency; following Hairston's 1981 study, the survey also focused on error egregiousness. The survey was sent to samples from three different university populations: faculty, first-year writing students, and advanced writing students. Faculty's identification of errors and their seriousness is compared to that of students. The results of the survey help composition instructors target what to teach based on what students already know and don't know about error and its relative seriousness. The study offers suggestions for teaching the identified taxonomy of the most frequent, most serious errors; it also calls for more research in order to continue building the data instructors use to justify pedagogy.



College and Department

Humanities; English



Date Submitted


Document Type





teaching writing, error, grammar, usage, composition, first-year writing