During an intramural teaching forum, I was interested to learn from a Head of Department (HoD) that she didn't consider it her role to correct grammatical errors when evaluating coursework submissions (an essay, say) at the post-graduate level and that she limited her assessments to the content of the essay. I'm an HoD myself and am directly opposed to this, and have strongly recommended to academic staff in my department that the assessment of grammar should be part of the feedback provided to students. My reasons for this are:

  • Communications with peers, the public and policy makers are important aspects of the role.
  • While a number of our students are non-native English language speakers, there are a number of so-called native English language speakers with atrocious writing skills.
  • The students appreciate the feedback they receive and we can detect a substantial improvement in their writing skills.

The other HoD's reasons are equally cogent:

  • The university already has a minimum language level required for entry.
  • This additional task would impose a heavy burden on her already limited staffing resources.
  • Students need only be made aware that there are errors and can seek guidance on correcting the grammatical issues elsewhere.

This is my question to you good folks:

  • For teachers, what is the practice in your department and is this practice backed by specific assessment policies?
  • For students, what are your expectations about your grammar being corrected?

EDIT: I am interested in approaches from STEM fields, primarily. As @DanRomik points out in the comments, the approach in the humanities and arts may be different.

To put this in perspective, here is part of a report submitted in partial fulfillment of a basic statistics course at the Master's level that I am grading at the moment. The statistical formulae, graphs and numerical results are spot on.

This report uses te data from the study of [redacted] about lizard to do some analysis. Graph 1 shows the survival status of lizard. The value of survival lizard are higher than that of the death lizard.

How would you approach such a submission?

Thank you for your patience.

PS. I have found the related thread here but it focused on peer-review. Nevertheless, I accept that some grammatical errors are so egregious as to make the submission unintelligible. I am not concerned about those submissions here.

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    I recognize the style: looks like that of my students :-( Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 7:35
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    For context, can you tell us what your area is? (You mention grading a statistics course so that would be my guess, but it'd be good if you can make that more explicit.) The answer to your question would potentially be very different for the humanities than for STEM disciplines. Even within those categories there could be differences, e.g., for math, grammar can be important to the extent that the correctness of a proof may depend on subtle grammatical distinctions (whereas physicists I assume generally wouldn't care ;-))
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 7:39
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    I'm in industry not in academia, but if we got a STEM job application written in that "standard" of English, it would go straight into the reject pile. If the education system can't teach applicants to write by the time they have a first or higher degree, we don't consider it our job to provide free remedial education classes!
    – alephzero
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 10:23
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    If the language level is "I can haz..." or the mistakes can be reduced by simple spell check I return such works to resubmit with proper [english]. When the student is a foreigner, I ask them to correct the language politely.
    – Crowley
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 14:37
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    For reference, what are your institution's cutoff admission scores for TOEFL, SAT/GRE -Analytical Writing and -Verbal? Is this workload coming disproportionately from the bottom end of the scale? You could make the case for raising the cutoff.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 23:26

6 Answers 6


I am somewhere in between physics and mathematics. My personal policy is this:

  • I mark any spelling, punctuation, or grammar mistake I find, but I do not explicitly search for them. However, I usually do not go at lengths to explain why something is wrong.

  • This does not affect the grade unless the number of mistakes severely affects the readability of the text or is particularly egregious. (Being in Germany, I may be more lenient on submissions in German by non-native speakers, depending on the programme’s main language and other factors.)

My rationale for this is:

  • As I have to thoroughly read the text anyway, the additional effort for marking mistakes are negligible in comparison to the reading time. In most of the cases, it’s adding a comma, crossing out a letter, or replacing a single word. This applies to analogue submissions as well as to digital ones.

  • Just telling students that they made language mistakes somewhere in their writings does not really help them. The effort of seeking help from a third party is unfeasible in most situations (and disproportionate in comparison to my effort). However, I expect that they are able to find out the source of a specific mistake that I marked.

  • The admission requirements should not and cannot be so strict that only people who completely mastered the language can be admitted. In many languages, even native speakers tend to commit some systematic spelling mistakes (in particular regarding punctuation) that can only be weeded out this way.

So in short, I think that the other HoD’s rationale is blatantly misjudging factors.

We do not have any departmental policies regarding this here, but I know many that follow a similar policy.


If you are well organized, you can have your students submit a first draft early enough that you can still send them back to a campus writing assistance center if need be.

Have them submit the draft to you triple spaced and/or with wide margins. Mark some feedback clearly on a section of the draft, so the writing center folks can see what approach should be taken. You don't need to do this throughout the whole submission.

In addition, you could have some TAs in your department designated to be able to help with these aspects during their office hours.

I was assigned this TA duty for several semesters in an applied math department. As we worked through the draft together, I used the opportunity to help the student understand certain things about English.

Some students were foreigners and some were not. I remember one student, second generation Italian American, first generation college goer. He was a hard worker and an intelligent young man, who was hazy on grammar and sentence structure.

The department had a commitment to supporting student growth, including their ability to express themselves clearly.

  • I don't know what a campus writing assistance center* is or whether any of the universities where I did my studies at had one. I assume I'm not the only one...
    – fgysin
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 16:32
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    @fgysin I googled campus writing center and the name of one of the most famous universities in the U.S., to see if it would give me a helpful example. Result: "The Writing Center, part of the Harvard College Writing Program, is a place for Harvard undergraduates to get help with any aspect of their writing, from specific assignments to general writing skills. The Writing Center is staffed by trained undergraduate tutors who provide individual conferences to students working on any writing assignment." writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 19:52
  • @fgysin I don't know if it's common outside of the US, but there's such an office on every US university I'm familiar with. Oftentimes it's organized under the library. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 1:02

I tend to agree with your stance. The other HoD's points make sense, too, but only when considering each of them separately, in particular:

  • The university already has a minimum language level required for entry.
  • This additional task would impose a heavy burden on her already limited staffing resources.

I see no way how both of these can be right at the same time. Either, the minimum language level required for entry ensures that students sufficiently master grammar (in which case pointing out the remaining mistakes should not be much work), or there is indeed a considerable amount of mistakes left (in which case the entry requirements do not seem to solve the problem).

As an additional issue, I fear I have seen often enough how

  • Students need only be made aware that there are errors and can seek guidance on correcting the grammatical issues elsewhere.

plays out: "I asked my friend to check my text. He's really good at grammar. He told me that I should write 'Researchers of not made no new findings about it's standart deviation.' in passive voice, so I changed it to 'Their of been no new findings about it's standart deviation.'" While it is not a guarantee that the text will turn out right afterwards, at least indicating which words need to be revised cancels out at least some misguided attempts of students correcting the text without knowing what they are doing.

Therefore, I would indeed opt for just marking the mistakes, not indicating how to fix them (unless that is inherently a part of the marking, such as for indicating missing commas or whitespace between words). That should not take much additional time because jotting one or two lines at the respective positions while reading is sufficient.

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    Good observation about the contradictory HoD claims. The way I've seen that play out, it's means something like: "Our institution sets an 'acceptability' threshold, which is intolerably low; but that is their responsibility and we cannot overrule what is officially sanctioned as acceptable language skills here." Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 18:23
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    @DanielR.Collins: I disagree with that stance: The 'acceptability' threshold is the threshold students have to master to start studying. It says nothing about the language skills they must have acquired by the time they graduate in general, and even less about the skills they need to have acquired to pass your particular (possibly more text-focused than others) class. Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 18:25
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    Sure, I disagree with it, too. But that at least explains why it's not self-contradictory in a proponent's brain. Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 18:34

I'm in math. I think it's extremely rare that I offer students (either undergraduates or graduate students) feedback to help them improve their grammar, for the simple and unfortunate reason that if I were in the habit of doing that then I wouldn't have time for anything else. Getting students to understand the mathematical concepts I'm teaching and express themselves clearly (irrespective of grammar) and correctly is already a major challenge all by itself, and virtually all overseas students (and as OP points out, some native students) have grammar difficulties ranging from moderate to serious, so the time and cognitive resources to aspire to such luxuries as correct grammar simply aren't there.

Despite this, I will occasionally mark off points for incorrect grammar if it's bad enough that it affects the correctness of an answer or my ability to discern the meaning that the student is trying to express. I may offer a bit of helpful feedback on rare occasions, especially in the case of a really good international student with poor English, where both the student and I get frustrated by the fact that the student knows the material very well but finds it extremely difficult to make their knowledge apparent. But generally speaking, expecting me to consider teaching grammar to students a part of my job by offering feedback on a regular basis would be wildly unrealistic.


I will be following this one, as incorrect grammar in anything other than short texts and comments really irks me.

That said, I would approach the said lizard situation as I would any other time that something did not make any sense....

I would simply ask if the author meant that the survival rate/value outpaced the death rate/value....and if so, suggest that be made as an edit in order for ease of reading for the general populace.

I am ass+u+me{ing}(please get the joke) that the author's first language is not English, and that would be the reason for the incorrect grammar.

// I know that humor and Stack Exchange does not go well, but at 1:14am, it seems like a good idea.

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    dear lord, the up/down vote history on this comment is like a soccer match 6 up 3 down.: Note: downvotes without comments are infantile. Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 1:57
  • Let's say, rather, that downvotes without comments are not helpful. (I didn't vote one way or the other.) Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 4:46
  • Yes, your way is more tactful >.< Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 4:58

I have a bit of experience on both ends, as I am a current student, but have also graded research papers as a TA.

For teachers, what is the practice in your department and is this practice backed by specific assessment policies?

My department does not have any official policies, but professors will often refer students to our university's writing center for assistance, occasionally offering incentives such as extra credit if students have their manuscript reviewed by the writing center prior to submission (this does tend to produce better writing and fewer grammatical errors overall- which not only benefits the students, but also makes the grading process easier).

Since marking grammar can be very time-consuming as a grader, some professors create a marking scheme/code for particular grammar errors. While creating said code can be time-consuming upfront, it makes the regular process of marking grammar and providing useful feedback much simpler.

For students, what are your expectations about your grammar being corrected?

As a student, I don't generally expect that my professors will correct my grammar unless it's so awful as to be unintelligible. Some professors will occasionally mark students' grammar as incorrect without explaining any further, and I have not found this to be particularly helpful. While third parties are often available, students (at least my peers) are generally uninterested in seeking them out, due to the effort and time involved. If your goal is to help students improve their writing and grammar, simply marking grammar as "wrong" and expecting them to seek further information elsewhere seems unlikely to accomplish this goal.

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