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The grammar hotline@ TCC

Most colleges and libraries provide the equivalent of a grammar hotline service every time someone calls and asks whether to use affect or effect. Whoever answers the phone is being asked to perform the same services that have been designated as grammar hotlines at several dozen colleges, where faculty members and qualified graduate students answer the public's questions about writing, pronunciation, spelling, grammar, word choice, and related matters. At least sixty services are now being operated by teachers and former teachers in the United States and Canada.

Initiating an official grammar hotline is easy, especially for institutions with established writing centers or skills centers, but it is also possible to start a service in a library or an English department office. Based on the experience of the Tidewater Community College Writing Center since 1981 and with assistance from data collected in 1984 by Kay Benton, former Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Writing Center at Northern Virginia Community College, Loudon Campus, these guidelines offer recommendations for establishing grammar hotlines. I am grateful to Benton for permission to include some of her survey results in this article and to include an edited version of her results in this packet. An updated survey is planned for the end of 1994.

The value of these grammar hotline services is undeniable. All the hotlines receive several calls an hour, some of them as many as one hundred a day, often accompanied by expressions of gratitude from secretaries whose bosses insist that commas can cure syntax errors or that towards is the plural of toward; from high school students trying to distinguish between direct objects and subject complements; and from university students uncertain about the focus of their essays or the documentation of their research papers.

Originally informal telephone services that became institutionalized, the earliest of which was probably initiated at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1978, these hotlines have become important support services to students and to the community. No longer are they limited to telephone calls. Fax machines and the internet have increased not only access to but demand for instant editorial advice.

Grammar hotlines are especially valuable for nontraditional students. As the student profile at many colleges and universities changes, students are not likely to live on campus and less likely to find teachers' office hours convenient. Instead, students may be working the early or late shift at the local market or factory; they may well be salespeople in the shops at the mall or unemployed workers changing careers by choice or because of displacement. Jobs and families compete with their teachers for their time. These students work on their writing assignments after their children are in bed or early in the morning before work. For these students, the telephone service makes a writing teacher accessible when their own teachers are not. With fax and on-line hotlines, students can send their questions and concerns day or night. Experts can answer when teaching schedules permit. Thus, the grammar hotline in its expanded role as a writer's hotline is not a frill or a public relations gimmick; it is an opportunity to discuss writing with a writing teacher.

Businesses often come to depend on their local grammar hotlines. At Tidewater Community College, for example, I have come to know several callers over the past decade. One caller is a court reporter with whom I try to make up spellings for words that have been said in court but that don't appear in our dictionaries so that she can transcribe them for the record. For at least six years, a principal at a local school has called frequently to check on the wording of materials going from his office to the public; three years ago, he introduced himself by name. A secretary who first called for help punctuating a boss's documents has been promoted to administrative assistant and now calls for help punctuating her own documents. Advertising copy writers call to verify usages (and sometimes to get rationales for unconventional usages that are visually appealing though grammatically unacceptable such as "TIME HAS PAST"). Journalists and copy editors occasionally identify themselves with questions about the acceptability of headlines like "Orioles wins pennant." Some questions have money riding on them ("I win a free lunch if 'between Pat and myself' is correct"). Some questions involve legal cases. And of course crossword puzzlers and nitpickers call.

In addition to helping the community within local calling distance, grammar hotlines serve callers throughout the country. Occasionally, a businessperson struggling to compose an unambiguous contract seeks advice from several services or calls an open hotline across the country when the nearby college is closed. More than half the callers to the dozen services responding to Benton's survey are businesspeople, the remainder divided among members of the local community, students, faculty, and staff.

Sponsoring schools receive several benefits--not only the reward of serving a grateful public but also public relations bonuses. Many hotlines have been mentioned in national as well as local newspapers and magazines, a few of the early ones in Time and, so I've been told, some on televisions's Today show. Grammar hotlines and the Grammar Hotline Directory have been mentioned in newsletters that go to architects, dentists, plumbers, insurance agents, court reporters, writers, editors, and advertising copy writers as well as to secretaries. Magazines as diverse as Nation's Business and Good Housekeeping and as specialized as National Shorthand Reporter and In-House Graphics have plugged hotline services. And hotlines have been featured in Composition Chronicle, Lingua Franca, and the New York Times. Several books, handbooks, and writing seminars either list the hotlines from the Grammar Hotline Directory or mention the directory as a source of information. In 1993, the National Braille Press produced an edition for the blind. Sometimes this excellent publicity helps to convince wavering administrators that the writing centers which house the grammar hotlines have a far-reaching impact.

Establishing a grammar hotline is probably easiest for schools with study skills centers or writing centers where telephones and knowledgeable staff are already available. Those two elements are the first requirements for creating a service. As a matter of fact, we at Tidewater Community College began in a writing center without a telephone extension; one of the ways we justified the expense of installing a phone--to be staffed at no additional cost to the college by the faculty members already hard at work tutoring students--was the creation of the hotline.

Institutions without study skills centers may be able to requisition a faculty office or even a small classroom that can become both the beginning of a writing center and a grammar hotline. An extra desk and phone line in the English department office or library can serve well; after all, most people seeking such help in a community that lacks a hotline look to the nearest library or college English department.



Staffing a hotline service is most difficult for schools that have no writing center staff. Nevertheless, it may be possible to find a few faculty members willing to volunteer some of their office hours for answering questions or to accept release time for answering the phone. Schools with graduate students can recruit from that personnel pool, even adding grammar hotline service to assistantship and fellowship duties. Grant money to support part-time workers may be available. Benton's survey shows that English department faculty members staff half the hotlines while some use graduate students who are specializing in language, literature, or rhetoric and who have teaching experience. Those services that use peer tutors provide special training. At TCC, the Writing Center Director is also the Grammar Hotline Director, who depends on rotating shifts of willing faculty members to devote a portion of their office hours to writing center and grammar hotline service. Within the last year, additional release time has been granted to extend the hours of operation and to encourage other faculty members to spend time in the center.

Whatever staffing method is used, a coordinator is helpful. First, scheduling of the hotline operation and staff shifts should be centralized; second, a single person can most effectively supervise the record keeping; and third, an individual-in-charge can become the established representative of the grammar hotline for community contacts and public relations.

Equipment and Materials

Equipment for a grammar hotline is minimal. In addition to the obvious telephone, a desk, and some shelves--begged and borrowed if necessary--the major expense is reference books. Our library generously donated an unabridged dictionary and a couple of college dictionaries, some business reference handbooks, and a few usage guides. I brought in a few books from home, the English department contributed a few, and other faculty members contributed materials. Desirable reference materials include the following:

Several dictionaries: desk and unabridged essential; specialized handbooks such as medical and legal terminology and literary and linguistic terms desirable; a few foreign language dictionaries such as French, Spanish, German, and Latin

  • One or two thesauruses
  • One or more recent secretarial handbooks--perhaps the most valuable resource because so many callers are businesspeople wanting to know the correct form of address for a letter to a mayor or the position and punctuation of subject lines in letters or the standards for capitalizing names of departments (we use The Gregg Reference Manual)
  • Usage and style guides from Fowler to Follett to Strunk and White to Bernstein for settling sticky questions about the difference between due to and because of or in behalf of and on behalf of; we now use Webster's Dictionary of English Usage as well
  • Documentation style manuals, for example, Chicago and Turabian, MLA, APA, Associated Press, Government Printing Office
  • Regular and reverse abbreviations guides (we don't have these but often wish we did)
  • Guides to idioms, slang, popular expressions, legal terms, medical terms
  • Several recent college handbooks, including the ones regularly used by students

Chatting with callers about verb endings and gender-neutral salutations may be fun, but it's only part of the job. Because administrators want to see evidence of the effectiveness of the service, caller logs are essential. Our daily log simply records the time of the call, the type of caller (businessperson, student, writer or editor, educator, other), the type of problem or question presented (typical categories are grammar, usage, spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, syntax, composition, business format), and a short description of the question or answer or both--depending on time constraints. At the end of each month we tally the calls and report our contacts to the administration. At TCC we have a policy not to ask callers for identification; we certainly don't want to inhibit people who wish to remain anonymous (some of whom have later revealed themselves to be local media people embarrassed to reveal gaps in their knowledge); therefore, "other" is the major category listed for callers. Many callers choose to identify themselves--either by name or by purpose ("I'm typing a letter for a law firm" or "I'm writing a term paper for economics").

Hotline staffs generate publicity in various ways. Sending a schedule of operating hours to local media every term, establishing a contact with a local columnist, speaking to community groups about grammar or usage or about amusing calls, and expressing a willingness to talk to radio show hosts and reporters about any matter related to writing--these methods help keep the service and the school before the public.

Financial rewards do not exist so far as I know. Most hotlines receive the majority of their funding from English department budgets, some with supplements from grants or from general college funds. Funds to help pay the staff or to purchase reference works might be possible through requests for donations from area businesses.

An annual directory listing the known services has been published each January since 1982 by the Tidewater Community College Writing Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia; the first edition named a dozen hotlines, the current edition more than sixty. Listings are free, and a copy of the directory is available at no cost to anyone who sends a stamped, self-addressed, business-letter-sized envelope to Grammar Hotline Directory, Tidewater Community College Writing Center, 1700 College Crescent, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23453. Multiple copies are available as special orders for a dollar each, including postage and handling. TCC has been distributing approximately eight thousand copies a year. For the 1994 edition, Houghton Mifflin provided printing and binding for the directories and is distributing ten thousand additional free copies.

No official organization of grammar hotlines exists. However, because many of the hotlines are associated with writing centers, they keep in touch through their electronic list, WCenter, and at conferences where writing center issues are addressed.

Enclosed with the print version of these guidelines are several items that may be helpful to institutions developing grammar hotlines: Benton's survey results, sample logs and reports from TCC, a Grammar Hotline Directory entry form, and some articles about hotlines. Please don't hesitate to contact the Writing Center at Tidewater Community College (757-822-7170, e-mail for further information about the hotline or the directory.

Survey of Grammar Hotlines

Written, conducted, and compiled by Kay H. Benton, Fall 1984

Copyright 1984 Kay H. Benton


As Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Writing Center at the Loudon Campus of Northern Virginia Community College (a position I left in December 1984 to become an ESL teacher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia), I conducted a study in the Fall of 1984 to determine the feasibility of our center's beginning a Grammar Hotline in the spring of 1985. As part of that study, I devised a twenty-two question survey.


I sent the survey to the nineteen grammar hotlines connected with colleges and universities across the country as listed in the 1984 Grammar Hotline Directory compiled in September 1983 by Donna Reiss of Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, Virginia. A cover letter gave a brief explanation of the purpose for this study, and a self-addressed envelope was enclosed with each survey so that participants could easily return their responses.


Of the nineteen questionnaires sent to grammar hotlines, I received twelve responses. In addition, Los Angeles Pierce College replied that its Grammar Hotline had been discontinued.

Hours of Operation

In schools that had both a Writing Center/Lab and a Grammar Hotline, seven of the eleven respondents operated both services under the same hours. Two hotlines kept fewer hours (one six hours less and one twenty hours less); two others were open more hours than the center/lab. One operated "round the clock" and one ten more (forty hours for the hotline versus thirty hours for the center).

Calls to the hotlines during hours of non-service were handled in four different ways as indicated by ten responses. Four provided for no answer (one respondent wrote, "When we're closed, we're closed"); three asked callers to call back during regular hours of operation (two with recorded messages, one in person); two recorded calls for later response; and one used automatic call forwarding to the English department for later response.


Four of hotlines had a separate hotline administrator from that of Writing Lab Director/Writing Center Director/Writing Resource Director/Learning Lab Director.

Training and qualifications

Ten responses about the kinds of training and/or qualifications needed by the persons who answered the hotlines revealed that the majority used professional individuals to fulfill this responsibility. Five indicated that they used "Ph.D.s who teach writing," "part-time or full-time English instructors," and "composition authorities and former teachers." Three used graduate students, and four used peer tutors or student hire. Those who used graduate students indicated that these students' study of linguistics, literature, composition, or rhetoric and the fact that they had taught college classes qualified them as hotline workers. The four hotlines which used peer tutors stressed that the tutors received their training from having taken prior college English courses and from their closely related Writing Center/Lab work, class, and staff meetings.


All twelve grammar hotlines indicated that they were available for use by the general public. Eight reported use also by students, staff, and faculty. One grammar hotline indicated that it did not publicize the hotline to its students because it wanted to encourage students to come to the center in person. Ten hotlines served communities of 50,000 or more. Several respondents said they served the "entire nation" because they received calls from "everywhere." One hotline served a community of 20-50,000 and one a community of 10-20,000.

There was a much greater range in the size of the student populations the grammar hotlines served. Three of the twelve respondents had student populations of 20-30,000 while two served student populations of more than 30,000, two served 5-10,000, two served 2-5,000, and two served less than 2,000. One hotline had a student population of 10-20,000.

Sixty-one percent of the callers to all the hotlines were businesspeople. Community callers were listed next as the most frequent users of the hotlines (sixteen percent of callers). Faculty and staff users (twelve percent) were next. Students used the grammar hotlines least (eleven percent).

Numbers of calls

Calls to the hotlines ranged from one or two a day to one hundred a day; from three a week to five hundred a week; and from fifty per semester to ten thousand per semester.

Documentation of responses

Four of the ten hotlines answering this section required the people who answered the telephone to document all answers while three required documentation of some answers but allowed staff members to use their own judgment. One said those who answered the hotlines should document all answers but "depending on the question" could use their own judgments in answering.


All four hotlines which used peer tutors or student workers paid $3.35 minimum wage. Three hotlines which used graduate students gave academic credit, paid five dollars per hour, or provided assistantships which also covered Writing Center/Lab work.


Twelve hotlines responded, seven saying that most of their funding came from English Department/College Division budgets, five saying that they received funds from the overall university/college budget (one bought a six-hundred-dollar code-a-phone from such funds); two received grant money (one from banks and publishers to operate during summer months and one from the federal government for work-study students); and three said their hotlines needed no funding other than that shared with their Writing Center/Labs.

The amount of funds allocated for eight of the twelve hotlines was reported as zero. Four said all costs were absorbed by the Writing Centers/Labs, and four said the hotline costs were zero. Less than 250 dollars per quarter/semester was stated as needed funds for two hotlines while one said it had between 500 and 1,000 dollars allocated per quarter/semester. Of the two responses to the question about the allocation of hotline budgets, one said one hundred percent went to personnel costs and one said one hundred percent went to equipment costs.


Seven hotlines reported that they used just one telephone. Five said they used more than one telephone. Three indicated they had answering machines, and two had automatic call-forwarding capability.


All seven publicity methods mentioned by the questionnaire were used by the twelve respondents, with newspaper articles being named the most (eight times). Next in popularity were TV/radio appearances by staff members (six) with flyers coming in a close third (five). Three said they used interdepartmental channels such as memos, meetings, etc.; two used posters; and one said staff members made visits to campus classrooms. Other publicity methods used were bookmarks (three), brochures (one), listing in the Grammar Hotline Directory (one), mailers to businesses (one), and syndication of a local news article (one).

Various persons were responsible for publicizing the hotlines with the Writing Center/Lab director named most often (four). Others listed include the assistant director, Office of Continuing Education, Office of Community Affairs, tutors, college publicist, and "word of mouth."

Seven of nine respondents said no money was specifically allocated for promotion of their hotlines. Two said that money was specifically allocated: one said "as needed" from the English department, and one said that the Office of Community Affairs funded a mailer.

Resources and references

Asked to name three resource books they felt to be most helpful in operating a hotline, ten respondents named the following books two or more times: American Heritage Dictionary (3), Harbrace College Handbook (3), unabridged and recent dictionary (3), Webster's Third New International Dictionary (2), and the Chicago Manual of Style (2). Other references listed:

Hutchinson, Standard Handbook for Secretaries

Morris and Morris Contemporary English Usage

Gregg Reference Manual

Montgomery and Stratton, The Writer's Hotline Handbook

American Usage and Style: The Consensus

Prentice-Hall Handbook

An American Rhetoric

Bartlett's Famous Quotations

the Bible

Additional Comments

"Newspeople love to write about Grammar Hotlines."

"Hotline in operation 8 years. As result of national TV show, receive multitude of calls from 50 states weekly."

"Grammar hotlines become mini-reference librarians. Be prepared for all sorts of questions . . . ."

"Our hotline has received the kind of attention (3 continents, over 400 newspapers, national TV coverage, BBC coverage, etc.) because it uniquely involves high-powered people in a labor of love. . . . You'd have to be mad or in love with writing to try to duplicate this. . . ."

Note for Web edition 1997: To prepare this Web version of the Grammar Hotline Guidelines, I made few changes, primarily the contact information. I retired from the Writing Center and Grammar Hotline at the end of 1995 in order to devote more time to computer-supported communication for active learning both for my own classes and as a professional development workshop leader for colleagues at TCC and elsewhere. I do remain a member of the center staff, under the capable new leadership of Ann Woolford-Singh, who directs the Writing Center and Grammar Hotline, updates the annual Grammar Hotline Directory, and coordinates our campus site of the Epiphany Project.--Donna Reiss, March 1997

By Donna Reiss, Associate Professor of English and Writing Center-Grammar Hotline Director, 1981-1995; Copyright 1991, 1994, 1997