How Should Grammar Be Taught? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about why I think we need a new approach to grammar instruction. (Click here to read Part 1.)

Today I’m going to begin by talking not about language, but about math. (Sometimes it’s a good idea to use an unusual example to make a point. Readers pay more attention when your explanation takes an unexpected route.)

A good friend who teaches fifth grade is a strong believer in hands-on learning. When her pupils study fractions, she has them cut various shapes into thirds, fourths, eighths, and so on to make sure they understand why – for example – an eighth is smaller than a fourth even though 8 is a bigger number than 4.

When she hands out a page of math problems involving fractions, she encourages students to draw a little sketch of an apple cut into fourths, or a pizza cut into eighths, and so on. Good pedagogy!

But here’s what’s surprising – and she says she’s seen hundreds of fifth graders do this over the years. After they’ve drawn the pizza or apple, they go back to count the pieces. Mind you, they knew there were 8 eighths when they drew the pizza! But they still want to count (and, she says, often they tap each piece).

I’m going to chime in here with my own experience. When I taught a study skills course, I always included a math unit. (Incidentally, I used a textbook I’d written myself.)

It was disheartening to work with college freshmen who were hopelessly confused about fractions, decimals, and percents. I had a number of students who didn’t know there were four fourths in a whole. (I am not making this up.) They’d never been allowed to experience math in a concrete, hands-on way. And – not surprisingly – they were hopelessly lost when it was time to solve word problems.

(Humor me while I make one more detour. My teacher friend told me she’d had many fifth-grade pupils who couldn’t count past 109. They’d never been allowed to count real objects. Check it out yourself if you have a school-age child handy.)

Back to grammar. Any normal child has an impressive grasp of grammar by the age of five. An English-speaking child knows how to string words together to make perfect sense. You’ll never hear a child say, “Cake birthday baked Mommy.” Children know that in English, the adjective (birthday) usually comes before the noun (cake), and that the subject (Mommy) comes before the verb (baked).

And then that child gets old enough to go to school and is handed a workbook that makes English sound like an alien tongue. There is much labeling and underlining with the object of teaching children how to put a sentence together – even though they’ve been putting sentences together without the slightest difficulty since they learned how to talk.

But isn’t grammar instruction important if you want to write error-free sentences? Tune in next time for the last of these three posts.

a circle divided into fourths



How Should Grammar Be Taught?

This is the first of three posts about conventional grammar instruction – and why I think we need to rethink it.

If you visit my blog often, you know I love stories – and I think they’re marvelous writing tools. (Here’s some writing advice for you: Start collecting stories!)

Today I’m going to tell you about a research project that has been repeated again and again – with identical results. A smiling researcher visits a kindergarten class. She holds up a paper fan she’s made and asks the children if they know what it is. Of course they do! She hands each child a piece of paper a piece of paper and box of crayons. They get right to work and make their own fans.

Then the researcher hands out another piece of paper. This time she picks up an instructor’s guide and reads the children a step-by-step set of directions for making a fan. They laboriously go through the steps to make a second fan.

Now it’s time for the final step in the research project. The researcher hands out yet another piece of paper and asks the children to make one more fan. Not one of them can do it. (The results are always the same!) They’ve lost a skill they had when they walked into the classroom that morning. Why? Because they suddenly realized that making a fan is complicated.

Now let’s think about writing. Does the way we teach grammar help students feel confident about writing – or does it make writing seem hopelessly complicated?

More about this (and another story!) in my next post.

folded paper fan



Dashing through the Snow

I love dashes. They’re fun to use and help create a friendly tone when you’re writing. (But if you’re writing a formal business report or academic paper, you might want to use fewer dashes.)

Dashes – which interrupt sentences, like this – are different from hyphens. Hyphens are used to combine word pairs that are followed by a noun: a dark-green dress. 

The best way to learn how to use dashes is by reading. Once you get a feeling for the rhythms of various kinds of sentences, you’ll start to be comfortable using dashes. (If you need a series of rules for using dashes, you’re probably not ready for them yet.)

Formatting dashes is another matter. There are strict rules, and you need some computer skills. Here are the basics: “n” and “m” dashes look different but work the same way. You should know that “n” dashes are shorter than “m” dashes. “N” dashes are preferred for ranges of dates, numbers, and time: “Labs are usually scheduled from 9:00 – 11:00 AM.”

You can set up the preferences feature in Microsoft Word to make “m” dashes for you. They are longer than “n” dashes and used for breaks in sentences. One technique is to type space hyphen space. Then type the next word and hit the space bar. Presto! The hyphens magically change into an “m” dash.

The other way is to type two hyphens with no spaces. Repeat: no spaces. Type the next word, hit the space bar, and the two hyphens automatically melt into one beautiful dash.

The ability to format dashes is one of the marks of a professional! If you need more help, do a Google search – or ask a knowledgeable friend to help you.

Don’t make up your own system for spaces and dashes. I’ve known writers who randomly hit the hyphen key and space bar when they use dashes. Nope!

Examples of sentences with a hyphen, an en dash, and an m dash



More Writing Tips

My folder of writing tips, trivia, and likes and dislikes is filling up again! Here’s a sampling:

  •  I often hear self-proclaimed experts complain that we’re losing the original meanings of some useful words. Before you sign on to that preservation project, think about all the common words that have permanently lost their original meanings. Here are a few: candidate (which used to mean “dressed in white”), manufacture (“made by hand”), and manuscript (“written by hand”). You can’t fight change!
  • quite naturally wants people to write and publish so that it can sell more books! So it makes sense that they’ve created a series of excellent instructional posts for writers. This post about self-publishing is especially good:
  • Now, currently, and at this time are useful ways to refer to something happening in the present. But they’re often unnecessary, and they can make your writing sound pompous. “He lives in Massachusetts” means the same as “He is currently living in Massachusetts” – and the simpler version sounds a lot more natural.
  • Many writers use actually to add emphasis to a sentence (“I actually like the new lineup”). It rarely works well. My advice is to be cautious with actually.
  • I came across “Cantabrigian” in a New Yorker article and had to look up the meaning. One day I irritably mentioned “Cantabrigian” to my sister and remarked that nobody could possibly know what it means. She smiled gently and said, “A Cantabrigian is a resident of Cambridge.” I’d forgotten that she used to work at a Harvard medical clinic – in, of course, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, I’m going to encourage you to avoid words that are unfamiliar to your readers – or to figure out a way to slip the meaning into the sentence.
  • “Cantabrigian” doesn’t look like “Cambridge” (at least not to me!). With the help of Google, I found out why the spelling is so different. Over time, the original name “Grontabricc” evolved into “Cantabrigge” (giving us “Cantabrigian”) and finally to “Cambridge.”
  • Anyone would think that Cambridge got its name from the river Cam. But exactly the opposite happened: Cambridge came first, and then people started talking about the river Cam. Linguists call this process is called a “back formation.”
  • Want another example of a “back formation”? The word “enthuse” came after – not before – the words “enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic.” When I was in high school, I was warned never to use the word “enthuse” – it was suspect because of its shady origins as a back formation. Over time many “back formation” words have become respectable, and that’s exactly what’s happening to enthuse today….I’ve even seen it in the meticulously edited New Yorker magazine.

                      Cambridge, Massachusetts


Breaking a Habit

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about a wonderful line in the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Henry Higgins (the professor of speech in My Fair Lady) is musing regretfully about the strong feelings he’s developed for his pupil Eliza Doolittle. Luckily, he thinks, it will be easy to forget about her: “…rather like a habit one can always break.”

Everyone who’s ever tried to break a habit can appreciate the delicious irony in the song: It’s not so easy, Prof. Higgins!

The song has been running through my head because I am faced with several habits I need to break – writing habits, that is. I always capitalize Internet and Web. But (if I’m successful!) this is the last time I’ll write them with capital letters. The latest editions of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have just decided that both terms should be lower case.

They’re also asking us to drop the hyphen in email. And there’s one more:  flyer (not flier) is the preferred spelling for a person who travels by plane – and for a paper handout.

Today’s post is sort of a double whammy. I’m a) updating you about some changes in our language and b) using this opportunity to give you some background about why these changes happen.

I – for one – am very happy writing Internet, Web, and flier. I use all three words frequently, and I’m not looking forward to making the changes. So why should I knuckle under?

The short answer is that I’m a professional writer. That means I have to keep up with what’s going on in the English language. The longer answer is that I respect the reasoning behind these changes. The Associated Press checked airline websites and discovered that flyer was their preferred spelling. That’s a good reason for making the change. The terms Internet and Web have been around now for a number of years, and they’re not trademarked terms – good reasons for switching to lower case.

The more writing you do, the more ambiguities you uncover. Is it okay, ok, o.k., or OK? That’s four spellings to choose from! What about catalogue and catalog? Barbecue and barbeque? Adviser and advisor?

Serious writers don’t make guesses or rely on hunches. They have solid reasons for their choices. Usually that means checking a reference book. Journalists rely on the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook. Other writers (like me!) generally check the Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s ok to have preferences of your own as long as you’re consistent and don’t pretend you’re right and everyone else is wrong. I always use the ok spelling in my blogs because it has an informal feel. But yesterday I chose the okay spelling for a book I’m editing because it looks more professional.

How do you make word choices?


Time Management for Writers

I just came across a wonderful article about marketing by entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk: How To Start. If you’re hoping to sell what you write, you need to read his article, bookmark it, and keep going back to reread it. More important, it includes a useful message about time management for writers.

When I read it for the first time, my heart lifted: here – at last – was the answer to a question that’s been bugging me for a long time: Are my time management practices working for me – or against me?

Here’s what I mean. A couple of weeks ago I was browsing in a thrift store, looking for props for an upcoming dance routine. I came across a Scott Turow paperback novel I hadn’t heard of. (Turow is the author of a mystery I’d really enjoyed: Presumed Innocent.) I bought Identical and had fun sitting up late one night reading it.

But here’s the thing: I spent several minutes in the used paperbacks section of that store debating whether to buy it. The 50-cent price wasn’t the problem, of course: it was the time I would spend reading it.

I worry about time – worry a lot, in fact. I swear that if you stand close enough to me, you’ll hear Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” playing in an endless loop in my head: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” I fret that I’m wasting too much time on things that don’t matter. But when I’m really focused on my priorities, I start worrying that maybe, just maybe, I’m trying too hard. And so it goes, round and round.

If you followed me around for a day or two, you might wonder what I was worried about. I hang out with friends. I read the comics and do the Jumble in the newspaper. Charlie and I are watching reruns of Big Bang Theory for the second time. He and I just got back from a wonderful trip to a mountain resort where we hiked, fished, and tossed peanuts to the chipmunks. I love having free time, and I keep my days as open as possible: no committees, no meetings. There are lots of naps.

But what you might not pick up on is the elaborate scaffolding that likes hidden beneath almost everything I do. I don’t channel-surf, ever. I’m always making choices about TV, phone calls, reading, and just about everything else. I don’t even clean the microwave without asking Alan Lakein’s question from How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life: Is this the best use of my time right now?

And it’s not just me. I have friends with the same level of focus who have similar doubts about how they manage their time. Just recently someone told me – in bewilderment – that she keeps hearing people talk about tagging along with a group “just for the ride” or “just to get out of the house.” The contrast to her own purpose-driven days – and mine – is startling. And so we wonder: who’s missing out – us…or them?

Vaynerchuk – bless him! – thinks we’re the ones who got it right:

If you want it, your actions have to match your ambitions. Don’t have dinner at seven o’clock and drink two beers. Don’t watch entire seasons of House of Cards. Don’t spend 45 minutes on Facebook talking to Rick.

There’s exasperation in his voice as he talks to the people who look to him for advice:

The reason I say these things, is because I hear every single day how bad you want it, and how much you’re going to work for it, and then your actions don’t add up.

If you’re serious about writing (or anything else, for that matter), I think Vaynerchuk has it figured out. I’m not saying you have to be busy every minute (gack!) – or that it’s wrong to have fun (heaven forbid!). But I am saying you’d better know what you really, really want from life…and go after it, whole hog.

What’s the best use of your time right now?

chariot with wings

                  Time’s Winged Chariot



Bronson Alcott

Most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a writer who’s often called America’s greatest philosopher. But they may never heard of Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), a close friend and (according to Emerson) a better philosopher.

So why is Emerson still remembered while Alcott is forgotten? I’m going to let you answer that question yourself. Here’s an excerpt from Alcott’s book Concord Days. Alcott is musing about his lifelong habit of keeping a journal:

Was it the accident of being shown, when a boy, in the old oaken cabinet, my mother’s little journal, that set me out in this chase of myself, continued almost uninterruptedly, and now fixed by habit as a part of the day, like the rising and setting of the sun? Yet it has educated me Into whatever skill I possess with the pen. I know not to how much besides; has made me emulous of attaining the art of portraying my thoughts, occupations, surroundings, friendships; and could I succeed in sketching to the life a single day’s doings, should esteem myself as having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature. Yet the nobler the life and the busier, the less, perhaps, gets written, and that which in, the less rewards perusal.

You see the problem: despite his brilliance, Alcott couldn’t write worth a damn. If you’ve heard of him at all, you probably know he was the father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. (She somehow developed the writing skills that always eluded her father.)

What Alcott could do – engagingly and brilliantly – was talk. He made several tours around the United States conducting “conversations.” Huge numbers of people bought tickets to hear Alcott talk to them from a platform – a popular form of entertainment in those pre-TV days. Alcott was also an advocate of progressive education long before John Dewey and Maria Montessori came on the scene.

So the gifts were there, in abundance – all except the ability to write. Bronson’s problem was that his family didn’t have the money to send him to college. (If you read and loved Little Women when you were growing up, you probably remember that college was an unattainable dream for the ambitious Jo March, who also grew up in a family of modest means.)

Of course you can be a great writer without college. (Louisa did it!) But clearly Bronson needed help. If he could have attended a community college back then and taken a few writing courses, who knows what direction American philosophy and education might have taken?

No matter. I taught writing at a community college for 30 years. So today I’m going to pretend that Bronson is a student in one of my classes, and I’m going to offer him some feedback. You’re welcome to eavesdrop to see if some of my tips might help with your own writing.

Hi, Bronson. I’m intrigued that you’ve traced your enthusiasm for journaling to a childhood memory about an oaken cabinet and your mother’s journal. Another point that interests me is your conviction that “sketching to the life a single day’s doings” is equivalent to the “having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature.”

The problem is that I don’t quite get what you’re trying to tell me. How is a journal entry about one day similar to great literature? I’m hooked – tell me more about what you’re thinking!

I have the same problem with the journal you found in that “oaken cabinet.” I’m not connecting with that little boy and the thoughts and feelings he had at that moment.

I can tell that you’re brilliant. And I know from hearing you talk that you have a real ability to touch people through your words and ideas. What you want to work on is making that connection when you’re writing.

Here are some tips:

–  Put down your pen and talk  to someone who cares about you. Tell them the story of that oaken cabinet and what you saw inside. See if you can coax that little boy from long ago to talk about that experience. Then you’ll be ready to write.

 – Use short sentences. (I was worn out by a couple of your long, long sentences!)

–  Use everyday words. (I had to look up “emulous.” If a college professor with a doctorate doesn’t understand your vocabulary, what chance does the average reader have?)

What’s most important, Bronson, is to picture one of your readers while you’re writing. Talk to him (or her) in a human, personal way. Stop trying to sound wise and profound. Connect!

I’m looking forward to reading your next paper and learning more about how that boyhood experience shaped you.

Sincerely, Prof. Reynolds

Orchard House, home of the Alcotts

              Orchard House, Home of the Alcotts


Computer Tips and Tricks from David Pogue

The holiday season is here! Here’s a gift for you – a wonderful list of computer tips from New York Times technology expert David Pogue.

As Pogue explains in the article, very few of us ever sign up for a computer course. We tend to bumble along, picking up various skills as we go. And that means we may have missed out on some wonderful tricks along the way. That’s certainly true of me – I’m still learning computer shortcuts.

I loved this article and picked up some useful tips. (If you already know all these skills, you can celebrate how smart you are! Go ahead and post neener, neener in the comments box.)



Confusing Words

Here comes another round of words that that can trip you up.

  • Discomfit originally meant “defeat,” but nowadays it often means “to make someone feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.” You can see why: discomfit looks very much like discomfort. But some authorities still insist that “defeat” is the only correct meaning. Rather than get mixed up in this argument, I would avoid discomfit altogether.
  • I have a friend who often uses equanimity to mean “equality.” But the correct meaning is “calmness”: “She held on to her equanimity throughout Jim’s tirade.”
  • Fulsome sounds like it should mean “extravagant,” but the dictionary meaning is “insincere.”
  • Disinterested does not mean uninterested – but many people use them interchangeably. When that happens, we lose a useful word from our language. Interest can mean “invested in” or “involved in”: “Joe owns an interest in a new start-up.” So disinterested means “not involved” or “impartial.” If you took someone to court, you’d want a disinterested person to hear your case.
  • Luxuriant means lush, thick, or profuse. A head of hair can be luxuriant. If you’re staying in a first-class hotel, you’re in luxurious surroundings – a different word.
  • Noisome sounds like a word you’d use to describe a rowdy party. But the actual meaning is “having a bad smell,” and it can also mean “unpleasant.”

noisome means "bad smell"



Begin with the End in Mind

Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my favorite books. It’s full of useful (and sometimes unconventional, which is even better!) advice. Today I’m going to take Habit 2 – “Begin with the end in mind” – and apply it to writing.

Covey’s book explains that thinking about the final result – even if it’s years away – can help you plan effectively, communicate clearly, and increase your chances of getting exactly what you want. For example, if you reflect on the kind of person you want your child to grow up to be, you’re likely to make more effective parenting decisions.

Good advice! But we’re going somewhere different today. A recent conversation got me started thinking about thinking – more specifically, thinking about the main point you’re making. It sounds simple, but when you start listening to conversations, you realize how often we get bogged down in side trips and detours.

I often drop in at a nearby donut shop for a snack and conversation with other regular visitors. On one recent afternoon, a customer said that she was unusually tired – she and a friend had driven to the airport at 1 AM to watch a flight take off.

Of course we wanted to know what was so special about the flight. She hesitated, searching for an answer. “It was the military,” she finally said.

Were they deploying to Afghanistan or some other far-off destination? More searching for an answer. Finally: “They were going to Washington.”

It took more prodding to get the whole story. Here in Florida, a program called Honor Flights is taking veterans to Washington DC to see the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials. Many citizens – including my donut shop friend – drive to the airport for the departure and arrival to applaud the veterans.

My friend’s confusion may have been the result of fatigue – or it may be that she never developed the conversational habit of zipping past the details to start with her main point. If you listen carefully to everyday conversations, you may discover (as I have) that it’s a common problem.

Another example: early one morning a teaching colleague called me. “Hi, Jean,” she said. “I have an 8:30 class, and I can’t be there this morning.”

“I’d love to help,” I said, “but I have an 8:30 class too.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said. “I was going to ask Donna if she could take the class, and I was hoping you had her phone number.”

I did, and Donna was able to teach the class. But afterward I reflected that this colleague always took a rambling road to reach the point she wanted to make. She already knew I couldn’t take her class – that’s why she knew I’d be up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 to answer the phone. But her phone call started as if that’s what she wanted me to do.

Back to writing. Most people (including me) start a writing project from our own point of view, which means that a fact or detail gets us started. Then we gradually work our way to the main point, result, or end.

Meanwhile our readers (if they stick around that long!) are wondering where the heck we’re going with this.

The wandering-and-roaming practice is especially common with students. I suspect one reason is they haven’t had enough practice shaping and presenting ideas. In many classrooms, it’s the teacher who does most of the talking – even though the students are the ones who need to develop their thinking and speaking skills.

So: I encourage you to keep Covey’s Habit 2 in mind when you’re writing (and talking): Begin with the end in mind. Listen to yourself and to others in conversation. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the thoughtful, carefully organized ideas you hear.

But don’t be surprised if you discover that your communication skills need some work – and of course that’s true of both speaking and writing.

                         Stephen Covey