What we often think of as our students’ “grammar” problems are, in fact, usage problems or what a linguist would refer to as “performance” (as opposed to “competence”) errors: mistakes made when translating from a more conversational style of thinking into writing and print. [I know this all too well, alas, from the tennis court: I have actually yelled at players (as a coach) for improper mechanics–such as footwork on a ground stroke–and found myself days later making the same error in a game, knowing that I was making the error, and not being able to stop myself]. A good example of this performance error in student writing is the run-on sentence. As I describe it to students, it is a problem of having too much in one sentence–a conflation that we can and often do get away with in conversation but not in the silent space of print.
I followed up a recent essay in English 101 by talking briefly in class about a couple of things I was seeing in the essays. I do this so that the work that students put into the writing the prior week (drafting, revising, editing) does not abruptly end when they turn the essay in; I also want to provide some context for my comments when they get the essays back from me and to highlight that the response is focused toward the next project. I shared examples of strengths I saw with a focal point we had worked on for that essay; I identified the run-on problem I had seen in many of the essays. I then referred students to the onlineGuide to Grammar and Writing–which is the best web resource I have found for dealing with grammar and usage, and for shifting responsibility from me to the students. You can check out the section on run-ons and fused sentences (and other comma related errors) to see what it offers. A second resource for usage is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)–I find this better for help with citation format and documentation, though it also includes material on grammar and usage.
I highly recommend the Guide to Grammar and Writing, and suggest that you refer students to it when you notice issues that continually come up in their writing. I tell my students that I won’t correct their writing, won’t be their editor. But I will help students to get a grasp on some larger grammatical/mechanical issues (performance errors) that they can improve: by taking it to the Writing Center for a targeted follow-up discussion and practice, by following up with me in a conference, or by referring to a writing handbook or the Guide to Grammar and Writing site (two nice features: cross-referencing and practice quizzes). I also refer students to a list of the 20 Most Common Formal Errors for college students (provided by the Writing Center) and have them use this as a checklist. The point is that students need a manageable list that identifies the kinds of problems they encounter and which we, their teachers, are likely to have issues with. We need a manageable list ourselves–since there is, obviously, much more than the mechanics of writing that we need to respond to and instruct.
So, I go “Ben Franklin” on my students: make a to-do list of writing issues that you want to work on (not just grammar and mechanics, but also style and argument and poetics), think you need to work on, are being told you need to improve. And slowly but steadily work on that. And take pleasure in checking a few off the list before the end of the semester.