Chapter Five -- What Should We Teach?
KISS Modifications of Traditional Grammar

        For centuries, traditional grammar served well as an instructional tool. The history of that grammar, and the reasons for its eventual failure are beyond the scope of this book. But rather than just dismissing traditional grammar, as some linguists would have us do, we should first reexamine it to see if and how it can be modified to meet the needs of current school children. KISS Grammar applies some basic concepts of modern linguistics to simplify traditional grammar while simultaneously increasing its analytical power.

The Nature of KISS Definitions

         The very concept of "definition" is slippery. In Understanding Grammar, Paul Roberts, my favorite grammarian, discusses the "Three Bases of Definition":

         Some confusion and argument can be avoided if we understand the bases of our definitions. There are at least three possible bases, which will be called in this book the formal, the syntactic, and the notional. By formal definition we shall mean definition based on form -- sounds in the spoken language, spelling in the written. By syntactic definition we shall mean definition based on syntax -- the relation of words to other words in the sentence. By notional definition we shall mean definition based on our understanding of the relationship of words to the actual, real-world phenomena represented by the words.
         For illustration, let us make three brief and incomplete definitions of noun:
Formal: A noun is a word that forms a plural in -s.
Syntactic: A noun is a word that may serve as subject of a verb.
Notional: A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.
Obviously none of these adequately defines noun, but each of them might be expanded and qualified so as to approach adequacy. Grammarians use sometimes one kind of definition and sometimes another, and sometimes a combination, as circumstances require or as their temperament leads them. (10-11)
This passage raises two important points. First, there are at least three fundamental perspectives towards grammatical definitions -- formal, syntactic, and notional. Second, which perspective a grammarian takes depends on "circumstances" and "temperament."  Grammatical definitions, in other words, are affected by a grammarian's purpose (circumstances) and by his or her fundamental philosophical beliefs (temperament). There are, in still other words, as many different grammars as there are grammarians. This leaves us with the question of which grammar should we teach, and which type of definition (formal, syntactic, notional) should we base it on.
        The KISS Approach essentially uses what Roberts calls "syntactic definitions."  A noun is a noun because it syntactically functions in a sentence as a noun functions. The problem with this base for KISS definitions should be obvious -- in order to understand what a noun is, one has to understand how words function in sentences. In other words, one already has to know what a noun is. Fortunately, this isn't the problem it appears to be. No matter which "base" one uses for defining grammatical terms, the identification of specific terms in specific texts almost always turns out to be the same. For second graders, for example, the notional definition of a noun as "the name of a person, place, or thing" is very helpful. Second graders live, speak, and write in a very concrete world. The definition, therefore, can associate an enormous number of words with the category "noun."
        Although it is usually the traditional notional definition of the noun that is most picked on, the traditional notional definition of the verb is actually more troublesome. To tell students that a verb is a word that "shows action or a state of being" is worse than useless -- it is confusing. In "The fight was short," which word "shows action"? And what, exactly, is a "state of being"? Of the three types of definition proposed by Roberts, if our objective is to help students identify verbs, perhaps our best option is the formal definition. The various tenses of verbs display enough formal distinctions to make such a definition at least more helpful -- and less confusing -- than is the notional.
        There is, however, a different way of defining things. All of the options presented by Roberts are Aristotelian definitions -- they attempt to define with words. Wittgenstein, one of the 20th century's greatest philosophers of language, suggested what he called "ostensive" definitions. In essence, these are definitions by pointing. Consider, for example, how we all learned the concept "red." No Aristotelian definition could teach it to us. We had to see numerous examples. When, as children, we saw something that was pink, and we called it red, someone corrected us.  Teachers may find that within a KISS Approach, ostensive definitions are the best way to lead students into many of the concepts. They should, however, feel free to use any type of definition that works. And by "works," of course, I mean that the students end up able to point to any word in any sentence and say "That word is (or functions as) a ______ ."
        To get students started, KISS can also take a formal and/or notional approach to teaching prepositions. Once students can recognize subjects, verbs and prepositional phrases, they begin to understand the basic concept of  sentence-structure.  At that point, most of their work can be based on syntactic analysis, and syntactic analysis expands their concepts of noun, verb, etc. -- whatever functions as a subject, if it is not a pronoun, has to be a noun.

The Eight Parts of Speech

         Having spent some time on definitions, I need to point out that KISS does not treat the eight parts of speech in the same way that traditional grammar does. In the first place, KISS does not start with the parts of speech. Whereas most traditional approaches begin by defining the parts, KISS begins with the prepositional phrase and introduces other parts as needed. Second, traditional grammar assumes that the students' heads are empty. Thus it goes to great lengths attempting to define things that students already know. An ideal KISS Approach, for example, needs only very simple "syntactic" definitions of "adjective" and "adverb"  -- If a word modifies a noun or a pronoun, it functions as an adjective, and thus KISS calls it an adjective. If it modifies a verb, adverb, or adjective, it is an adverb. Given the sentence "The bent old man walked slowly," students already know that "The," "bent" and "old" chunk to (modify) "man." They also know that "slowly" modifies "walked."  Students will, of course, have to learn to identify nouns and verbs, but they do not need to learn that, for example, "Adverbs usually end in -ly."

         A Note about Pronouns

         Because pronouns function as nouns, they receive very little attention in The KISS Approach. Much of what is often taught about them can probably be junked. Does it help students in any way to know that pronouns x, y, and z are considered, by many grammarians to be "relative pronouns"? The one exception to this are the personal pronouns, first, second, and third. In many fields (human services, engineering, etc.) first person ("I," "me," "we," etc.) is prohibited by custom. Instructors in these fields simply tell students not to use first person. When the students, because they don't understand the term, use first person, they either get their papers back to rewrite, or they lose points. And even within our own discipline, we refer to first- and third-person narrators. Most of my college Freshmen have no idea what "person" means as a grammatical concept. Perhaps by trying to teach too many concepts, we have failed to effectively teach those that are meaningful and useful to our students.

Nexus and Modification  -- The Simplicity of English Sentence Structure

         All babies are geniuses. As very young children, we all taught ourselves our native language -- no one could have taught it to us, because we couldn't have understood them before we first understood the language. Pure genius! On the other hand, most of us (myself included) are not really very bright. There has to be something about language that makes it relatively easy to learn. There have to be a few basic principles that the child comes to understand (unconsciously) and then uses to develop an ever-expanding command of language. Although he was not looking at them from this perspective, in The Philosophy of Grammar, Otto Jespersen  suggests two such principles. He calls them "nexus" and "junction," and, like most grammarians, he gets into some very complex discussions of them. Those complexities, however, tend to obscure the important basic principle. His concept of "junction" is very close to the traditional "modification," and thus, within KISS, we call the concepts "nexus" and "modification."
        Nexus is the driving force of sentence structure. Having finished one sentence, readers expect to find a subject in the next sentence. Then they expect to find a finite verb. Depending on the meaning of the verb, they then expect to find a complement. This set of expectations gives English its basic sentence pattern: Subject / Finite Verb / Optional Complement. Nexus is the relationship between the parts of this pattern. Note that the pattern is, in fact, established on readers' expectations. If one of the preceding sentences had suddenly stopped

This set of expectations gives.
readers would be confused, wondering what the set  gives. Expectations, in other words, pull the reader through the text.
        The nexal pattern (S/V/C) forms a series of slots that are usually filled by a noun, finite verb, and then another noun or an adjective:
Boy / hit / ball.
The preceding sounds awkward because we normally use modifiers to clarify the meanings of the words in the main slots. Note that they are called "modifiers" because they literally modify the meaning of the word they describe. Whereas "boy" can mean any boy, "the boy" refers to a specific boy.
        Modifiers can themselves have modifiers, as in "the very young boy," where "very" modifies "young" which in turn modifies "boy."  In general, words that modify modifiers are the same words which modify verbs. They are therefore also called "adverbs."
        These two principles, nexus and modification, apply to 99.9% of the words in almost any text, the exceptions being interjections and direct address. This may seem like an overly simplistic explanation, but it isn't. The tremendous power of English sentence structure comes from embedding one nexal pattern into another. The embedded pattern functions as a noun or a modifier in the other nexal pattern.
        The preceding discussion of nexus implied that the verb is at the center (the core) of the nexal pattern. Differences in the way that verbs function result in two different types of nexal patterns. Consider the function of "won" ("win") in the following sentences:
1. Mara won the race.
2. He knew that Mara had won the race.
3. He saw Mara win the race.
4. He saw Mara winning the race.
In the first two examples, "won" is at the center of a nexal pattern, the words in which can stand as acceptable sentences: "Mara won the race." "Mara had won the race." In the last two, however, the words in the nexal patterns that revolve around "win" can not stand as acceptable sentences. Both "Mara win the race." and "Mara winning the race" are nexal (S/V/C) patterns, but neither, by itself, forms an acceptable English sentence.
        To distinguish these two types of patterns, we refer to the first (examples one and two) as having "finite verbs" and as being "clauses." Some sentences, as in example one, are formed from one clause. In other cases, as in example two, a clause can occupy a noun slot in another clause: "He knew something." "He knew [that Mara had won the race]." Clauses can occupy any "Noun" slot in another clause: "[That Mara won the race] is  [what he did not expect]."  When the verb in a nexal pattern cannot stand as a separate sentence (examples three and four above), we refer to the verb as a "verbal." In the KISS approach, students learn that every verb, in context, has to be either a finite verb (the center of a clause) or a verbal. They also learn that there are three (and only three) types of verbals. Here, however, we are interested in the fact that verbals themselves are nexal patterns and that they are embedded in other nexal patterns. In the examples above, the verbals are embedded in the complement slot: "He saw something." -- "He saw Mara win the race." "He saw Mara winning the race." Note that, like clauses, verbals can fill any "noun" slot in a sentence -- "Winning the race surprised Mara."
        Thus far we have seen that the core of English sentence structure is the S/V/C nexal pattern, that the words that occupy those slots can be clarified by modifiers, and that nexal patterns can be embedded in the "noun" slots of other nexal patterns. We have one more thing to look at -- nexal patterns as modifiers
        Consider the following four sentences:
1. The house that burned down was old.
2. He burned the house because he wanted the insurance money.
3. Rushing to the fire, a fireman was hurt.
4. He burned the house to get the insurance money.
The first two examples each consist of two clauses, but in neither case does the embedded clause fill a slot in the main S/V/C pattern. In the first example, the embedded clause ["that burned down"] functions as an adjective modifying "house." In the second example, the embedded clause ["because he wanted the insurance money"] explains why he burned it, and thus functions as an adverb to "burned." Thus, in addition to filling "noun" slots, clauses can function as modifiers.
        Examples three and four show that verbals can do the same thing. In example three, "rushing," which is itself modified by the prepositional phrase "to the fire," functions as an adjective modifying "fireman." And, like all verbals, "rushing" has a subject. If we ask "Who was rushing to the fire?" the answer, according to this sentence, is "the fireman." In example four, the verbal ("to get") explains why he burned the house, and thus functions as an adverb to "burned." It has a complement ("the insurance money"), and also an implicit (ellipsed?) subject -- himself.
        Instead of presenting students with ten, fifteen, or twenty "basic" sentence patterns, as many textbooks do, we should be teaching students that:
1. Nexal (S/V/C) patterns form the core of English sentence structure.
2. The words in those patterns are usually modified by adjectives and/or adverbs.
3. Nexal patterns (clauses or verbals) can be embedded in other nexal patterns, either in noun slots, or as modifiers.
The question, of course, is how do we teach students to expand on these concepts such that they can analyze and discuss any sentence that they read or write.

Two KISS Concepts -- Compounding and Ellipsis

         Most traditional grammar texts focus on constructions rather than on concepts. As a result they make the concept of compounding confusing. Under subjects, they present compound subjects; under verbs, they present compound verbs; under direct objects, they present compound direct objects; under clauses, they present compound clauses. Such duplication reflects an anatomical focus on "that" rather than "how" knowledge. But it also implies that some constructions can be compounded and others cannot be. It thus adds to students' confusion. Compounding should be taught once, as a concept. After that, students should be told "Theoretically, any grammatical construction can be compounded. Keep your eyes open."  Suppose, for example, that compounding is taught in the context of prepositional phrases ("with Sue and Sarah"). After that, students are more than intelligent enough to be able to recognize compound subjects, verbs, clauses or whatever other compounds they run across.
         Whereas traditional texts overemphasize compounding, they tend to ignore ellipsis. Ellipsis (the omission of understood words) is an extremely important and helpful concept if one is going to discuss randomly selected sentences from real texts. Traditional grammars probably miss this because, like the Latin grammars on which they are based, they focus on individual words. This works for Latin, but not for English. (For more on this, see "A History of Pedagogical Grammars" in TGLA on the KISS web site.) Ellipsis explains such things as the omission of subjects in commands -- "*You* close the door."  (My students suggested denoting ellipsed words by putting asterisks around them.)
         One of my favorite examples of ellipsis is "Put on your thinking cap." Clearly this does not mean "Put ?something? {on your thinking cap.}" Rather, it means "Put your thinking cap {on *your head.*}"  Sometimes the object is ellipsed because it is assumed to be understood, as in this passage from Aesop's Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper: "An Ant passed {by *him*,} bearing along with great toil an ear of corn ...."  In prepositional phrases with compound objects, it is often easier for students to visualize the analyzed sentence if they insert an "ellipsed" preposition: "{With its head} {in the sand,} and  {*with* its tail} {in the air,} an ostrich must look rather silly."
         As noted above ("Close the door."), "you" is ellipsed in subjects. When a verb phrase repeats a preceding one, part of the second verb and the complement are ellipsed by mature writers: "You did not complete the job as well as he did *complete the job.* When an entire verb phrase repeats the preceding one, it can be ellipsed. In this case, it is usually replaced by a comma: "The sky is blue; the grass, green."
         As they progress through the KISS levels, some students like to use ellipsis to create a better alignment between their explanations and the meaning of the sentence. Consider again the sentence "{With its head} {in the sand,} and  {*with* its tail} {in the air,} an ostrich must look rather silly." At KISS Level Five, when they learn to deal with noun absolutes, some students will look at that sentence and complain that "In the sand" does not modify "head" and "In the air" does not modify "tail." Instead, these two phrases tell where the head and tail are. To make the phrases adverbial, the students will add an ellipsed "being" -- "{With its head} *being*{in the sand,} and  {*with* its tail}} *being* {in the air,} an ostrich must look rather silly." If our objective is to get students to think about the relationships between syntax and meaning, ellipsis is an important concept.

The Constructions of KISS Grammar

        Whereas this chapter has been concerned with the principles and concepts of KISS Grammar, Part Four examines all the specific constructions, all the tools of KISS grammar. Studying these tools, in and of themselves, will not help anyone. A carpenter can lay out all his tools and explain them to you a thousand times, but you will still not be able to use them to build a doghouse. Most of those tools you will not need in order to build a doghouse. Studying them will be a waste of time. And as for the tools that you will need, to use them well, you would need to take them, one at a time, and practice with them. Such practice is the essence of the KISS Approach. Students do not need the massive grammar textbooks that most of them currently are required to use. Instead of studying grammar textbooks, students would profit much more by analyzing and discussing randomly selected short passages from a variety of sources -- newspapers, textbooks, literature, and, most important of all, their own writing.
         Some grammarians and linguists will argue that KISS Grammar "leaks" -- that there are some constructions or sentences that the grammar cannot explain. But that is true of every grammar, and, to my knowledge, no other approach to grammar even claims to enable students to analyze their own writing. Demonstrating the explanatory power of KISS grammar requires the analysis of numerous texts. Such a demonstration is impractical within this book, but there are dozens of randomly selected, analyzed passages on the KISS web site.