Tag Archives: grammar

How Should Grammar Be Taught? Part 3

This is the last of three posts about what’s wrong with the way we teach grammar. (Click here to read Part I and Part II.)

We effortlessly acquire language as children, and as the years go by, we spend an astounding amount of time using and interacting with words. But conventional teaching materials often talk about English as if it were an alien tongue that we’re being exposed to for the first time. (That’s literally true – many traditional grammar explanations are an uncomfortable attempt to squeeze English into the rules for Latin.)

Here’s an example. Nobody ever has difficulty with sentences like this one:

Jane helped me.

But what if Jane helped you and someone else? Easy-peasy! Just add the other person’s name to the sentence. Nothing else changes.

Jane helped Carol and me.

Let’s try another one:

I felt grateful to Jane.

What if you want to include Carol’s gratitude? Just add her name. Nothing else changes:

Carol and I felt grateful to Jane.

If you’re an English teacher, it’s easy to teach a class how to do similar sentences. I used to have students pair up to practice – students had fun and caught on quickly. Another handy trick was to bring strips of paper to class so that students could write various kinds of sentences and then pair up to check them.

But if you think students should master traditional grammar, you’ve got a tough road ahead of you. I’ve been reading (rereading, in fact – it’s a great book) Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Although much of Pinker’s information is excellent, his advice about avoiding grammar mistakes is incredibly complicated. If I’d been required to master his system,  I don’t think I’d be a professional writer today. He makes it sound so hard!

His method is based on a schematic he calls Trees. You organize words into these Tree patterns, and then the grammatical category tells you which pronoun to use.

Yesterday I tried to create one of these Trees for my “Carol and me” sentence above. It was so tricky and time consuming that I gave up after half an hour. But I did make a simpler Tree so that I could show you what Pinker is talking about:

Steven Pinker's Grammar TreePinker wants you to look at you and realize that it’s objective case.

So – in my “Carol and me” sentence – you would think: “Hmmm. I need an objective case pronoun because helped is a transitive verb. I know! I’ll use the objective-case first-person pronoun – me.

Really, Steven? That’s what you want us to do?

Students are subjected to similar confusion in classrooms everywhere. Result? They decide that they’re not smart enough to master English usage, and they give up trying to improve their writing skills. Smart, creative people with something interesting to say sadly decide they’re not cut out to be writers.

Employees with promising futures decide there’s no point trying to solve the writing problems that are blocking them from promotions. Worst of all, people determined to sharpen their skills spend hours and hours laboring over workbooks and computer programs – and then wonder why their writing doesn’t sparkle and shine.

I have a simple suggestion: Let’s build on what students already know about language. To put it differently: How about applying some common sense to the way we teach writing skills?

 

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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

 

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A Tale of Two Sentences

Everyone wants to write better sentences! So today we’re going to look at two sentences that contain errors. Of course I’ll explain the mistakes – but my real purpose today is to ask whether the mistakes matter.

The first sentence is from a New York Times article from 2013 by psychologist Maggie Koerth-Baker: No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic. (I should explain that A.D.H.D. is an acronym for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) Here’s the sentence:

Numerous brain-imaging studies have also shown distinct differences between the brains of people given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. and those not — including evidence that some with A.D.H.D. may have fewer receptors in certain regions for the chemical messenger dopamine, which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form.

Did you notice the indefinite pronoun reference? Here it is: which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form. The word which should refer to something that’s already been stated. But if you ask what impairs the brain’s ability to function in top form, you come up with this answer: The smaller number of receptors in the brain of someone with A.D.H.D. Since those exact words don’t appear in the sentence, we have an indefinite pronoun reference.

Does the mistake matter? I would argue that it doesn’t in this case: The sentence is perfectly clear. So why would anyone even bother learning how to identify and label a construction called an indefinite pronoun reference? Here’s why: In some situations (a legal case, for example), precision is essential.

Now let’s look at today’s second sentence. My friend Ellen Massey sent me a link to an NPR feature about this problematic sentence from the just-adopted party platform of the Texas Republican Party:

Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.

Take a look at the second half of the sentence: ...that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. You can’t say that truths “has been ordained.” You need the verb have.

So – according to the sentence – it’s homosexuality that “has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans” – the opposite of what the Republican Party intended. (Oddly enough, the 2014 version of the platform had the correct verb.)

Now let’s ask the same question: Does the mistake matter? Everyone knows what the Republicans meant. You can make a strong argument (as I did with our first sentence) that a writer’s real goal is to be understood, and one picky mistake doesn’t change anything.

But suppose a sentence like this was the pivotal point in a legal case. Do attorneys ever take sentences apart to determine their meaning – and do judges ever hand down decisions based on a grammatical construction?

You betcha. Arguing that a mistake slipped past you and changed the meaning of a sentence probably won’t hold water in a court of law. (In the workplace, your boss might not have much sympathy either.)

And there’s something else to consider. Articles about the mistake in the homosexuality sentence appeared in the Huffington Post, the Texas Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. How many of us are willing to risk being embarrassed that way?

A word to the wise: Learn as much as you can about sentence structure – and always double-check your verbs! A mistake you overlook could come back to haunt you.

Confused


 

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National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day – an appropriate time to think about the role that grammar plays in our lives.

I’ve been thinking – a lot – about an intriguing statement by James Harbeck in his Sesquiotica blog. Harbeck is a writer who specializes in language issues. Here’s what he said: “Not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar.”

Amen, amen.

Spelling mistakes, for example, aren’t grammar errors. I  have trouble spelling words with double letters. All the grammar instruction in the world isn’t going to help me spell Cincinnati correctly.

Clumsy sentences, poor word choices, and boring ideas aren’t grammar issues either.

Revising a weak article or essay takes multiple skills. (I know all about this, having done plenty of weak writing myself.) You need a strong thesis, powerful examples, and the ability to organize and develop ideas. You have to know how to grab your readers’ attention – and how to hold on to it.

Here are my favorite remedies for poor writing:

  • a friend who takes your writing seriously
  • a voracious reading habit
  • a sense of curiosity and wonder about language

 I’ll be wearing my Grammar Police t-shirt today to honor National Grammar Day. But I’ll also be reminding anyone willing to listen that grammar should be only one of many tools in a writer’s toolbox.

Grammar Police ok

 

 

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National Punctuation Day

Be still, my heart: A whole day to celebrate commas, semicolons, and apostrophes!

In honor of National Punctuation Day, here are some helpful tips to use when you’re writing and editing your work:

1.  Pay attention to introductions (extra ideas at the beginning of sentences). They require commas:

When I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox, my heart started pounding.

Once you know the difference between an introduction (which needs a comma) and a sentence (which needs a period), you won’t have to worry about run-ons and comma splices:

When I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox, my heart started pounding. CORRECT

I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox. My heart started pounding. CORRECT

2.  Break the bad habit of throwing an apostrophe into a word whenever you see an “s.” Apostrophes aren’t hard to learn – honest! Click here for some helpful resources.

3.  Adopt simple ways to think and talk about punctuation. Here are some handy rules that many people find helpful:

  • A semicolon is like a period, but it’s not followed by a capital letter.
  • Extra ideas (introductions) end with commas.
  • Sentences end in periods.

3.  Use your ears to help you punctuate. Listen for “Superman” sentences (voice drops) with two commas.

4.  Read, read, read. Ask yourself why the writer chose those punctuation marks. Observe and remember.

I’m always running into people who are astounded that periods and commas go inside punctuation marks. If you read magazines, newspapers, and books, you’ve probably seen these punctuation marks thousands of times. Take note, and use what you’ve learned next time! The same goes for commas, apostrophes, semicolons, and colons.

5.  Find a writing buddy and share your work. Talk about the punctuation choices you’ve made, and ask for feedback. Talking is a great way to learn, and you’ll be helping each other.

 

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Can You Spot These Writing Mistakes?

The Galloping Grammarian is at it again!

Here are two sentences with writing mistakes I came across recently.  The errors should have been corrected before they were published. Can you identify the problems?

The first is from a news story about Ines Sainz, the sports reporter who claims she was treated badly during a locker room interview:

Yes, she wears low-cut shirts, tight jeans and has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.

The second is from a literature blog:

A central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) was the first novel by a black author to make the best-seller lists.

Here are the answers:

The first sentence isn’t parallel. You can easily see the problem when the sentence is written like a three-part poem:

Yes, she wears

low-cut shirts

tight jeans and

has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.

Remember that parallelism errors are about lists, and the mistake almost always shows up in the third item. Here’s one way to correct the sentence:

Yes, she wears low-cut shirts and tight jeans, and she has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.  CORRECT

The second sentence is a dangling modifier. McKay’s Home to Harlem is a book, not a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. That “central figure” was McKay himself.

Here’s one way to correct it:

McKay, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote Home to Harlem in 1928. It was the first novel by a black author to make the best-seller lists. CORRECT

It’s often a good idea to write two shorter sentences, as I did here, rather than a long one. Cramming a lot of information into one long sentence often leads to errors.

Are you still confused about the dangling modifier? Let’s look at another one:

After filling the tank and changing the oil, Jill’s car was ready for the trip.  DANGLING MODIFIER

Jill’s car didn’t fill its gas tank and change the oil! Jill had to take care of those tasks herself. (Wouldn’t it be nice if cars did their own maintenance? Sorry – it doesn’t work what way.)

Here’s the corrected sentence:

After Jill filled the tank and changed the oil, her car was ready for the trip. CORRECT


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Less or Fewer?

I usually shop at Publix, a grocery chain located here in the Southeast. Their customer service is outstanding – why go anywhere else?

But I also appreciate their commitment to good writing. For a long time their stores featured a sign that proclaimed, “We will never, knowingly, disappoint you.” Good sentence: I approve.

But at some point (and I think this was a good decision) the commas around “knowingly” disappeared. Now the sentence flows without interruption: “We will never knowingly disappoint you.”

Where I really see the commitment to good English is at the express line, which proclaims that it’s for customers with “10 or fewer items.” A lesser grocery chain (ha!) would have said “less than 10 items.”

How do you know which is correct – less or fewer?

Here’s the rule: Use “fewer” for things you can count; use “less” for things you can’t count. So it would be less coffee but fewer cups of coffee. You can’t count coffee, but you can count cups.

“Less” and “fewer” cause a great deal of confusion, and I congratulate Publix for getting “fewer” right. So many people don’t. And here, perversely, is what I’ve been hearing more and more often lately: “Fewer than one.” Nope. “Less than one.” So you would say, “There’s less than one day to shop for my brother’s wedding.”

But now it’s time for me to go to Publix to salute that sign over the express line.

Publix Wikipedia ok

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