Celebrate Grammar!

Did you know that Wednesday, March 4, is National Grammar Day? If you’re looking for a lighthearted way to talk about grammar in your classes, you may want to observe this exciting holiday. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) hosts the 2015 National Grammar Day celebration. You can learn more about the history of the day and find tips for celebrating by visiting her Quick and Dirty Tips: National Grammar Day site.

Here at UW-Eau Claire, we have t-shirts and buttons we wear in honor of the day, a College of Business Facebook grammar contest (with really cool prizes), cookies decorated with punctuation marks, and an open house in our Business Writing and Presentations Studio. It’s a fun way to reinforce the importance of good grammar, and it’s just a great day all around. In my classes, we will also enjoy chocolate and a few grammar cartoons.

Do you celebrate National Grammar Day? If so, what do you do?

Classroom Talking Point: Intercultural Communication Gone Wrong

Coca-Cola Apologizes for Offensive Bottle Cap Message” reports the story of an Edmonton, Alberta, woman who opened her bottle of vitamin water and discovered a French word printed on the cap that, when read as an English word, means something terribly offensive. Coca-Cola had printed both French and English words on bottle caps as part of a promotional campaign. Coca-Cola has apologized and discontinued the promotion.

While the story itself is interesting, more interesting to me is the commentary after the article, particularly the many comments wondering why the language is offensive. News stories such as this provide discussion points for our business communication classes:

  • Why was this woman offended? What is it about the language that makes it offensive?
  • How would you respond to commenters who question why the language in the bottle cap is problematic? Are people who submitted comments overreacting? Underreacting? Appropriately reacting?
  • What if the word disparaged race, religion, or sexual orientation? Do you think people would have commented differently?
  • Did Coca-Cola react appropriately? Should Coca-Cola have done anything differently in addressing the issue?

While it is unfortunate that the incident happened at all, it does present us with a great opportunity to help our students become more sensitive and respectful business people.

On another note…Today is National Punctuation Day. Enjoy!

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Yes, it’s that time of year again. It’s National Punctuation Day. My classes and I are celebrating with chocolate and punctuation pattern sheets, but if you’re looking for something a little more exciting, check out the National Punctuation Day Web site. You’ll find teaching resources, punctuation guides, tips for celebrating National Punctuation Day, and much more.

You’ll even find a recipe for National Punctuation Day meatloaf. As someone who teaches punctuation as a rhetorical endeavor, I find it odd that they shape the meatloaf in the form of a question mark. It sort of implies “middle school cafeteria mystery meat,” but it’s still cute.

Are you celebrating? If so, tell us about it.

There’s a lot of punctuating to do today. Enjoy!

The Crib Sheet: A Different Kind of Final Exam

A few semesters ago, my  friend Jessica, an instructional designer, clued me in on a creative way to give the final exam in my Advanced Business Writing course.

Instead of writing an exam and having students respond to my questions, students tell me what they have learned in the course. I do provide some structure so their responses reflect course objectives and learning goals, but generally, students are on their own to tell me what they have learned.

The exam takes the form of a crib sheet. The instructions to the students are as follows:

Format & Design:

  • Fit the crib sheet into 2 – 4, 8 x 11 pages.
  • Be sure the document is visually appealing.  The layout is up to the you, but it should reflect principles of readability and document design we discussed in class.
  • Create the crib sheet in any software you wish (MS Word, MS Publisher, InDesign), but submit it in .pdf format to the D2L dropbox by Thursday, December 22, at 10 a.m. (-5 if the file is submitted in any other format).


  • The crib sheet must contain information on these topics:
    • Formal reports
    • Document design
    • Instructions
    • Writing for the Web vs. writing for print
    • News releases
    • Style
  • The crib sheet must contain at least five “take away” items under each topic that you want to remember or that you think you might need to refer to if you were asked to create these documents in a job, classroom, or internship setting. In the case of the course style guide, you might include elements of the guide that you find tricky to understand or that you tend to forget. You may include more than five items under any topic.
  • The information must be in your own words (don’t copy and paste from the notes or PowerPoints or copy directly from your textbook).
  • The information must be accurate.

Tone, Style, Correctness

You will also be assessed on the following:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Compliance with the course style guide
  • Mechanics
  • Professional tone and style

Students seem to enjoy this exam format. Many of them use Smart Art, shapes, color, graphics, or a brochure-type layout—anything that helps them visually organize and present the information they want to take away from the course.

Grading for this assignment is easy and quick. In my experience, students are fairly engaged in the exam and want to do well so that they can use the exam beyond the course. Give this a try. We would like to hear how it works for you. If you would like to see a sample exam, please email me at ginderpj@uwec.edu.

Attributive Nouns…Veteran’s Day, Veterans’ Day, or Veterans Day?

In observance of Veterans Day, I thought we could use this blog post to give a BComm-style shout out  to our veterans and service members.

Veteran’s Day? Veterans’ Day? or Veterans Day? Answer: Veterans Day.

Of course, the “Veteran’s Day” (-‘s) option does not really even make sense. But why not create a plural possessive by adding the apostrophe after the -s? In the case of Veterans Day (no apostrophe), “Veterans” is not a possessive noun; it is an attributive noun. That is, “Veterans” is an attribute (adjective) indicating the type of “Day,” not an indicator of possession. Thus the correct spelling omits the apostrophe.

Knowing whether a noun is attributive or possessive is not always clear–and knowing whether the noun is a singular possessive vs. plural possessive (e.g., Mother’s Day, not Mothers’ Day or Mothers Day) can also be tricky. My Chicago Manual of Style tells me that many times attribution and possession are matters of style and that writers should think carefully regarding the intent to communicate possession vs. attribute when determining whether to use an apostrophe.

Students will want to consult a good dictionary or company Web site to determine possession vs. attribution. In the case of “Veterans Day,” I found my answer on the Department of Veterans Affairs (no apostrophe in that name either) FAQ Web page.

If you or your students would like some practice with attributive and possessive nouns, please use this Apostrophes: Attributive vs. Possessive Nouns worksheet as you wish.

Many thanks to all of our veterans and service members!

Sentence Diagramming (No, really…Give it a chance!)

I know, I know…How is sentence diagramming useful in a world where students rely on grammar checkers and write text messages that defy any commonly held standards for English sentence construction? Sentence diagramming seems rather old school and unnecessary, doesn’t it?

Everything Old…

To my way of thinking, however, “everything old is new again” applies in the case of sentence diagramming. We talk frequently about our students being more visual and tactile in their learning than we might have been at their age and attribute their learning styles to their interactions with the Internet and video games. Interestingly, this seemingly old-fashioned activity of sentence diagramming is just the tool to address the needs of these learners. It offers a highly visual way for students to learn how elements of a sentence work together rhetorically, grammatically, and mechanically; and creating a diagram engages students in a hands-on activity.

I learned to diagram sentences in the seventh grade and continue to diagram with the same obsession that other people have for Sodoku puzzles. My students? Not so much. Many of them have not had any training in grammar and mechanics since middle or high school, and sadly many of them view the conventions governing standard English as some big mystery best unraveled by guess work and the “because it looks right/sounds right” method. Sentence diagrams or other strategies that present sentence structure as ordered and systematic are great ways to help students produce grammatically and mechanically sound sentences that also incorporate standard punctuation. Plus, sentence diagramming is just plain fun. Trust me on that one.

Of course there are always grey areas regarding what constitutes “standard” English; and good grammar, mechanics, and punctuation should always support and reflect the rhetorical function of a text rather than adhere strictly to prescriptive standards, but for teaching basic English sentence structure, sentence diagrams have been a valuable tool. My students have had many “a ha” moments once they see sentences as patterns rather than as random groupings of words.


If you want to learn to diagram sentences, teach your students to diagram, or create a few diagrams to use as illustrations during your grammar and mechanics lessons, here are some resources.

Elizabeth O’Brien’s Grammar Revolution: This is my favorite resource. Free downloads, books, RSS feeds, Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, free newsletter, sentences for diagramming delivered to your inbox…What can I say? This site has it all.

Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar: CCC provides diagramming instructions and examples of diagrams for common sentence patterns. The PowerPoint on how to diagram is especially helpful.

Literal Minded: This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.

So there you go…If you’ve used sentence diagrams in your courses, tell us what you do. If not, please give it a try, and tell us about your experience.

On a related note…National Punctuation Day is September 24. It’s not too early to start thinking about your celebration! If you like, share your plans with us.

Grammar, Mechanics, and Punctuation in the News

I admit I get pretty excited about teaching grammar, mechanics, and punctuation. I see these as primarily rhetorical issues that affect the meaning of a message and the writer’s professional image.

Unfortunately, some of my students (o.k., maybe several of my students) do not always share my excitement. In fact, a few have commented that they will never need to know the material because the “real world” will not care whether they know the difference between nominative and objective pronouns or whether the apostrophe goes before or after the –s.

To spark a little interest and even some discussion on these topics, I incorporate news or current events stories on grammar, mechanics, and punctuation into my course materials.

Sometimes I use an article to debate a topic (e.g., using the efficient and gender neutral but nonstandard “their” in “each employee should submit their vacation request” vs. using the standard but wordier “his or her request”). Sometimes I use the news articles to reinforce the need for standard or precise use (e.g., to avoid a lawsuit or professional embarrassment).

Whatever the context, I’m always pleased with my students’ engagement in the discussion.

Here are some of the articles I have used or plan to use. Do you have an article to share? If so, please let us know.


  1. Going, Going, and Gone? No: The Oxford Comma Is Safe…For Now”  
  2. Comma Quirk Irks Rogers
  3. Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location”  
  4. Little Apostrophe Confounds Information Age”  
  5. Facebook Discovers Pronouns to Avoid Grammar Violations”  
  6. On Twitter, Is It ‘He or She’ or ‘They’ or ‘Ip’?”  
  7. Sarcasm Punctuation? Like We Really Need That”  
  8. A Lesson in Grammar and Punctuation from the Court of Appeals”  
  9. Talking (Exclamation) Points” 
  10. Whose Day? Well, at Least It’s Not Who’s”  
  11. “‘Woe Is Us’ — Bad Grammar Permeates Language
  12. Arkansas House to Argue over Apostrophes”  
  13. Good Grammar in All of Us”  
  14. It’s a Catastrophe for the Apostrophe in Britain: Purists Lament City’s Dropping of Punctuation Mark from Street Signs
  15. The Supreme Court is Split on Apostrophes”  
  16. Judge Finds Typo-Prone Attorney Guilty of Bad Writing”