Category Archives: Grammar

A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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Do As You Should

I’m impressed by students’ chutzpah when they send me emails without capitalization or punctuation, but I don’t get bent out of shape. They’re only following conventions.

As a grammarian, I’m a descriptivist instead of a prescriptivist. That is, I’d rather my students know what a specific context might expect of them than demand how they structure language in all contexts. Their knowing gerunds require possessives is only important to me because some future employer may see it as a sign of a thorough education. When a person makes pronouns agree, he or she communicates a specific background, a standard not applicable everywhere.

When a person imposes a standard on others, however, the effect is different. Occasionally people catch me in grammar errors and interrupt our conversation to crow over my mistake. Sometimes, if I say I feel bad about something—the correct usage because my sense of touch is intact—they reply “I feel badly too” to correct me… incorrectly. Couples will ask me to rule on the usage of their partner. “Tell why that’s wrong,” a husband or wife says, instructing me to wag my finger in an English teacherly way.

My reaction is a shrug. Language is fluid. Usage has always and will always change. Thankfully, we are creative and resourceful beings.

For grammatical sticklers, what’s correct is often not the issue. All of the situations above hint at self-congratulation, rectitude as a hedge against personal insecurity. I teach grammar to protect students from those who would judge them, those who use judgment to feel better about themselves.

I’d rather describe questions and issues surrounding writing than give prescriptive guidelines. This point of view rubs some colleagues the wrong way—it sometimes frustrates students as well—and I respect that some composition teachers try to help students by supplying concrete and manageable rules. Believe me, I see how happy a checklist makes students.

However, I keep coming back to my own teachers, the ones who lied to me. Because students often create fragments when they start sentences with “because,” my fourth grade teacher told me a sentence couldn’t start with the word. A sixth grade teacher told me I couldn’t use contractions in writing. And an eighth grade teacher said, “No beginning a sentence with ‘and.’” “First person is positively out,” my senior English teacher said, “and that includes ‘my.”

These teachers may have felt I wasn’t ready for the truth. Perhaps they wanted me to master writing their way before moving on to more advanced techniques. Maybe they were looking for standards to make grading easier.

Fine, but writing isn’t easy. If every essay had exactly the same rules, the same emblems of effectiveness, the same size, form, and purpose, essays would be easy, but they might also be predictable, stiff, and dull. I don’t need to read another expertly written and spiritless five-paragraph critical essay. I’ve read enough.

From a teacher’s standpoint, explaining when “I” is appropriate may be inefficient. Experience tells me giving students the chance to practice using first person can be frustrating—they often use “I feel” and “I think” and “I believe” lazily. Decisions are central to writing, however. I’d rather students practice deciding than practice following rules that, it turns out, may not be rules at all.

No one likes hearing excellence is a moving target, but part of excellence is discovering what’s effective here and now, in this situation. I tell students their next English teacher will have different expectations. Students learn a great deal from responding to the writing “rules” each teacher gives them. Every student, however, is ultimately responsible for his or her own rules.

While I’d like to help, making composition easier may not help at all. Unfortunately much of what we call “correct” is visible only in retrospect and easier to describe than prescribe.

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