Are you ‘Mechanically Inclined’? You certainly can be with this must-have book for everything grammar and writing!

How do you feel about teaching Grammar? Do you cringe at the idea, or do you start to salivate with ideas of how you can help your students make even the most difficult concepts click?

For most of us, while we may be decent grammarians naturally, teaching the rules of grammar and writing (especially to students who don’t know even the most fundamental concepts — i.e. the ability to recognize a verb) is a daunting and exasperating task.

Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson is one of the most valuable and well-used books I have on my bookshelf.   According to the description on “Mechanically Inclined is the culmination of years of experimentation that merges the best of writer’s workshop elements with relevant theory about how and why skills should be taught. It connects theory about using grammar in context with practical instructional strategies, explains why kids often don’t understand or apply grammar and mechanics correctly, focuses on attending to the “high payoff,” or most common errors in student writing, and shows how to carefully construct a workshop environment that can best support grammar and mechanics concepts.”

Anderson promotes the idea of using a Writer’s Workshop, and within that, about 10 minutes of the workshop time is used for grammar and mechanics instruction.  He emphasizes the practice of teaching grammar and mechanics through literature, and encourages students to create authentic texts based upon this method.  This method of teaching–not correcting–the concepts of grammar and mechanics through reading is fundamental and at the core of the book–something that I wholeheartedly agree with and espouse myself. Grammar must be put into context. Students know that they must put a period at the end of a sentence, for the most part.  The challenge is getting students to transition from their everyday speech and dialect and slang to being able to “translate” their thoughts into formal language with appropriate grammar.

While this book is chock-full of useful information and ideas, a few concepts caught my attention in particular.  First, Anderson advocates using short mentor texts to help students view actual writing, rather than “canned” correct-all worksheets created by the millions by publishers.  Students can look in articles, short stories, novels, blogs, online texts, etc. to find examples of both good and bad writing right in front of them! Rather than wielding the red pen, use model texts to teach students what good writing looks like–and further, why. For example, students can be assigned the task of collecting sentences that demonstrate the use of compound sentences within the text they are currently reading.  Of course, this is a task found in many of our Literature Guides, and something that I used to have my students do even before I read Anderson’s book, so I am particularly in favor of this very effective practice!

In addition to using models, Anderson details how to set up and use a Writer’s Notebook, and encourages the notebook as a playground for writing.  From there, students are encouraged to keep returning to their notebook for inspiration on future writing, including essays.  Students can also refer to another of Anderson’s methods, the creation of student-made visuals and charts that cover the walls of the classroom.  This idea of a large visual that you can keep referring to is a living being in the class, as students are continually adding examples and notes to their charts.

Anderson details and explains common errors found in writing, complete with student examples, and ways to combat the problems in student writing.  These activities are not only effective, but they are meaningful–and fun–for students. Most importantly, students are engaged through real writing in context to help them learn and remember the concepts of grammar and mechanics.  Anderson’s engaging lessons and tools will not only squelch the “drill and kill” mentality, but will enhance your students’ confidence in their own writing.

For more about Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop, check out the book on for sample pages and foreword to the book, written by Vicki Spandel (author of Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer)

Using That versus Which

As you all may know, I do a lot of reading, writing, and some minor editing, so I decided to touch upon one of the issues I often come across in my work.  This month, I am getting technical as I explore the guidelines of that versus which in writing.

Before I move on to some of these guidelines, I must pause to note that the correct usage of that versus which is commonly debated and challenged.  Reading through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, you will find that almost all the points that I have outlined below have been disregarded.  It is important to note that the rules in British English are not the same as in American English, and that even in American English, scholars argue whether that and which are interchangeable in restrictive clauses.

Additionally, others might argue that the use of that and which unnecessarily confuses readers, and that sentences should be revised for clarity.  For example, rather than saying “The dinner that I ate on Friday night was delicious,” revise it to “Friday’s dinner was delicious.”

That being said, I have tried to take the guesswork out of the use of that and which, in case you are like me and happen to personally use a little that and which every once in a while.

Read the sentences below.

(A) My homework, which has sat on my desk all weekend, is due Monday.

(B) My homework that is due Monday is sitting on my desk.

Which one is correct?  Answer: both.

In a nutshell, here is the rule:  Use that before a restrictive clause and which for everything else. 

Now, in order to know when to use that, you must know what a restrictive clause is.  A restrictive clause is a part of a sentence that restricts a reference or meaning.  In other words, it must be in the sentence in order for the meaning of the sentence to be clearly understood.

Here is an example:

(A) Drinks that have a lot of sugar are bad for your teeth.

(B) The intake of too much sugar, which is often found in soft drinks, is the most common reason for tooth decay.

So, what is the difference between these two sentences?  First, Sentence A uses the word that; Sentence B uses the word which.  Second, Sentence A does not have any commas; Sentence B has two.  The reason for these differences is the restrictive clause.

Revisiting Sentence A: Drinks that have a lot of sugar are bad for your teeth.

This sentence has a restrictive clause.  What kinds of drinks are bad for your teeth?  Drinks that have a lot of sugar.  It is important that the reader knows that you are talking about drinks that have a lot of sugar in order for the meaning of the sentence to be clear.

We can test this by removing the clause that have a lot of sugar.  We are left with Drinks are bad for your teeth. Is the writer saying that all drinks are bad for your teeth? No. The writer is saying that drinks with a lot of sugar are bad for your teeth.  Therefore, the message of the sentence is “restricted” only to drinks that have a lot of sugar, non-inclusive of any other kinds of drinks.

Revisiting Sentence B: The intake of too much sugar, which is often found in soft drinks, is the most common reason for tooth decay.

This sentence does not have a restrictive clause.  To test this, take out the words within the commas and you have The intake of too much sugar is the most common reason for tooth decay.  Makes sense, right?  The additional information which is often found in soft drinks is not needed in order for us to understand the meaning and intention of the sentence.

Additionally, you will note that non-restrictive clauses are usually surrounded by (see the example above) or introduced by a comma, i.e. Sugary drinks are bad for your teeth, which makes your dentist happy.

So what about using that and which in your writing?  How do you know when to use each?

You must decide what information is necessary in your sentence. Which is correct?

(A) The printer that I had been saving up for finally went on sale. 

(B) The printer which I had been saving up for finally went on sale.

Which printer?  Not just ANY printer…but the one you had been saving up for!  So is there important information that you need to have in order to make the meaning of the sentence clear? Yes…we have the restrictive clause that I had been saving up for.  The correct answer is A.

Let’s look at another example:

(A) The glass of water, which has been sitting on my desk, is starting to sweat.

(B) The glass of water that I have on my desk is starting to sweat.

This one is clearly more tricky.  In this case, you will need to ask yourself what the intention of your sentence is.  For Sentence A, the point of the sentence is that the glass of water (which, incidentally, has been sitting on my desk) is starting to sweat. For Sentence B, the point of the sentence is that, specifically, the glass of water that is located on my desk is starting to sweat.  Of course, don’t forget that you can always rewrite your sentence, (something that I often do) to: The glass of water on my desk is starting to sweat.

It is also important to mention that it is crucial that you know we are referring to the use of that in a restrictive clause.  If you take a look at the previous sentence, the phrases that it is crucial and that you know are subordinating (or dependent) clauses—subordinating clauses are a whole other ball game.  In this case, the redundancy of the word that is the reason we should revise the sentence to something like: It is important to remember we are referring to the use of that in a restrictive clause.

Have any tips or tricks for teaching or remembering the use of that versus which?  Please comment!