Many students who have analyzed a good number of grammatical constructions in various texts will automatically start to use those constructions in their own writing. Some teachers may, however, want to encourage such transfer from passive recognition to active use. This chapter explores three approaches to doing so.
From Recognition into Writing
Perhaps the most frustrating exercises for students are those in which they are asked to use constructions that they cannot even identify in their writing. Such exercises can be helpful, and even enjoyable, however, if the students have learned to recognize the constructions.
Recipe Rosters simply give students a set of grammatical constructions that they are to use in a sentence. Some teachers love these exercises, and some hate them. Such rosters can be very harmful if used thoughtlessly. There are many horror stories about students being asked to create such sentences using constructions that are developmentally inappropriate. Used appropriately, however, these exercises can help students expand the variety of their sentence structure. It is very tempting to try to use such exercises to get students to write complicated sentences (and thus to give them complicated patterns), but these exercises require students to think consciously about the grammatical structure of their sentences, and most students are not accustomed to doing that. The following may be too simple, but an initial exercise might include just the basic patterns:
1. a. Write sentences for each of the following patterns:Note that Part (b) may force students to go back and add information within sentences. Good writers often do this as part of revision; weak writers rarely do. Although the example says "twelve words long," teachers will want to vary this number depending on the writing level of their students.
1. S / V
2. S & S / V
3. S / V
4. S / V / DO
5. S / V / IO DO
6. S & S / V / PA
7. S / V / PA & PA & PA
b. By adding adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases, make each of the sentences you wrote for 1.a into a sentence at least twelve words long.
Directions: Write a sentence for which the following would be the syntactic pattern. (Brackets indicate a subordinate clause.)Having the students in a class share their answers to a single-pattern exercise such as this would, for example, reinforce clause structure for students who are just beginning their work on subordinate clauses. And the variety of the students' responses would demonstrate how the same basic syntactic pattern underlies sentences with a wide array of meanings.
S conj. S / V / PN [S / V / DO]
Bill and Bob are twins who like fishing.
Love and hate are both emotions that cause problems.
Directions: Write sentences that include the following constructions.Used sparingly (and developmentally appropriately), these exercises can be effective, and they might even be made interesting as a form of competition.
1. Subordinate clause as subject: 4 prepositional phrases, 1 compound object of a preposition, 3 adjectives
2. Compound subordinate clauses as direct objects; 5 prepositional phrases; 4 adjectives.
3. One subordinate clause as an adjective within another clause; 2 subordinate clauses as adverbs; 4 prepositional phrases; 5 adjectives; 2 adverbs.
4. One subordinate clause as a direct object--within it put one subordinate clause as an adverb; compound subject; 5 prepositional phrases; 6 adjectives; 2 adverbs.
Sentence Combining and De-combining
As noted in Chapter Two,
Jeannette Harris and Lil Brannon have shown that sentence combining exercises
can be very effective for college students if the students can identify
the relevant constructions. Simply put, this means that if the exercises
involve combining clauses, then the students should be able to identify
clauses. If the exercises involve appositives, then the students should
be able to identify appositives. Although Harris and Brannon note that
their research may not apply to younger students, theoretically, it should
-- if the constructions taught are within the students' syntactic zone
of proximal development.
Combining exercises should probably be used against a background of occasional group statistical projects. These are discussed in more detail in Part IV, but a simple example would be to have every student in the class analyze a short passage of his or her own writing. The students could count the words, count the number of main clauses, and then calculate the average number of words per main clause. The individual averages would then be averaged to arrive at an average, or "norm," for the class. Without the individual perspective that such statistical projects provide students, combining exercises encourage those students who already write long, complicated sentences to write longer, more complicated ones. In addition, the statistical projects motivate students who do write shorter simpler sentences to try to improve their style, simply because the projects help them see for themselves how their writing is below the norm.
Developmental theory suggests that combining exercises should also be accompanied by a few exercises in de-combining. These exercises are easy to create, simply by collecting a few long sentences from students' writing. One of the sentences I use, for example, is:
At times when his team is winning he will be bubbly and/or cocky rubbing the score into the faces of the opposing team's fans or talking loudly about the score of the game as he leaves the park to be sure that people have heard him.It is probably best to give students one sentence per assignment, and then discuss it. Among other things, for example, I suggest that this 46-word, single main clause is more than twice the average length of the main clauses of professional writers. Its very length makes it difficult for some readers to understand.
At times when his team is winning he will be bubbly and/or cocky rubbing the score into the faces of the opposing team's fans. Or he will talk loudly about the score of the game as he leaves the park to be sure that people have heard him.This solves the length problem, but it undercuts the parallel between "rubbing" and "talking." Some students, therefore, prefer to change the sentence into three main clauses, using a dash to imply that the last two main clauses are examples of "bubbly and/or cocky":
At times when his team is winning he will be bubbly and/or cocky -- he will rub the score into the faces of the opposing team's fans, or he will talk loudly about the score of the game as he leaves the park to be sure that people have heard him.If I understand Piaget correctly, "cognitive mastery" includes reversibility. Helping students learn to de-combine thus should help them move in either direction, and it also provides opportunities to discuss differences in style.
can be combined into1) He arrived. She left.
I suggest to students that writers generally put the main idea in the main clause (MIMC), which means that (2) emphasizes "she left," whereas (3) emphasizes "He arrived." In the examples above, "when" connects the two clauses in a temporal relationship; "Because" makes the connection cause/effect. "Since" would make the relationship ambiguous.2) When he arrived, she left."
3) He arrived when she left.
4) Because he arrived, she left.
In Research on Written Composition:
New Directions for Teaching, George Hillocks reviewed "sentence
construction." According to Hillocks, sentence construction is a development
of the work of Francis Christensen. "It asks students to observe some phenomenon,
generate a basic sentence, and add details about the phenomenon using various
syntactic structures but particularly final free modifiers." (146) He concluded
that it "appears to be a promising technique for developing syntactic facility."
Hillocks devoted only two pages to sentence construction (146-7), but they are fertile pages. In particular, he discusses a study by Faigley, a study in which the students who did sentence construction exercises did statistically better on a number of measures. In an attempt to explain the results, Hillocks notes:
Faigley (1979c) suggests that generative rhetoric addresses the problem of unelaborated discourse 'by stressing the addition of specific details to abstract statements as a means of generating content" (p. 204). The pattern of instruction in Faigley's experimental treatment -- asking students to observe some phenomenon, generate a sentence, and build on the sentence by adding details observed -- suggests a reciprocal relationship, at least for final free modifiers, between structure and content. The structures taught demand content; content demands structuring. Elaborated discourse receives higher quality ratings than unelaborated discourse. (147)Hillocks also suggests why sentence construction may be superior to sentence combining:
While sentence combining exercises present students with given information in prefabricated sentences, sentence construction requires that students generate their own information prior to building syntactic structures. This difference may allow a rhetorical context for sentence construction, one in which the student writers must make decisions about which details are important and which are not, in view of the impact they wish to achieve. (146)
Sentence construction exercises are, in effect, a form of recipe rosters, but they are probably more effective than the rosters discussed above because they put more focus on meaning and content. They make students think about what they want to communicate, and then make them figure out logical and syntactic methods to create more elaborated sentences.
Many teachers like to require students
to revise something that they have written by adding specific grammatical
constructions to it. It is probably a good idea, however, to have students
do a few recipe rosters, sentence combining, and/or sentence construction
exercises first. When, for example, we ask students to add three subordinate
clauses to something that they have already written, we are asking for
a lot. First the students have to go over their paper to decide where
to add. Then they have to generate the content of what is to be
added (and evaluate the degree to which it fits). Finally, they have to
figure out how to add this information in the form of a subordinate
clause. Rarely has a teacher attempted such an exercise without having
students submit added information in the form of prepositional phrases,
verbals, main clauses, etc., and not in the form of subordinate clauses.
Rarely, that is, unless the students have been taught in advance how to
elaborate a sentence by adding subordinate clauses. Sentence construction
exercises, or other forms of recipe rosters, can thus be a very helpful
preparation for revision exercises because they allow students to focus
on the how in the context of single sentences -- which can then
be discussed in class.
As a writing teacher, I do not want my students thinking about grammar while they are drafting a paper. They should have thought of a good, tentative thesis sentence before they started to draft, and in crafting that sentence, its structure is important. But once they are into the drafting, any thoughts of grammar simply clog short-term memory. I therefore disagree with those teachers who give students a writing assignment and include a recipe roster in the assignment. Some students, of course, will totally ignore the roster, but others will be too focussed on it, and such focus will detract from their writing. Once a draft is done, however, I see no problem in including either recipe rosters or combining exercises in directions for "revision."
Grammar, Logic, and Critical Thinking
A common characteristic of most
of the studies that support the teaching of grammar is that they quickly,
if not simultaneously, go beyond simple identification of grammatical constructions.
The fundamental principle of the Christensen's A New Rhetoric, for
example, is that students write a main clause and then support it by adding
subordinate adjectives, prepositional phrases, clauses, etc. Anne Obenchain's
Links to Forceful Writing is even more specific in developing the
logical implications of grammatical links. The inside front cover of the
book consists of a two-column table, one column for "Coordinating Connectives,"
and one for "Subordinating." The rows in the table categorize connectives
as showing "contrast," "cause and result," "time," "general to specific,"
"condition," "purpose," "place," and "manner." Many of the chapters of
the book are organized around logical, not grammatical concepts: "VII.
Showing Cause and Result by a Variety of Connectives in a Variety of Sentence
Patterns." Their objective is to show students how to apply conscious knowledge
of grammar to the style and logic of what they read and write. The research
appears to suggest that grammar is taught most effectively when it is taught
as expressing basic logical connections.
In the 1980's, Ann Berthoff proposed an intriguing meaning for critical thinking when she defined a thought as "a mental apprehension of a relationship between an A and a B with reference to a C." [Unfortunately, I have lost the reference to this.] Berthoff's explanation, of course, applies to the basic KISS analytical procedure. In order to show how every word in any sentence relates (refers) to the main S/V/C pattern, we must look at one word or construction (an "A"), and at another (a "B"), and not only apprehend, but also explain the referring relationship (C). In, for example, "yellow house," "yellow" (A) is related to "house" (B) with the syntactic relationship (C) of an adjective. Syntactic relationships, however, almost always express logical relationships. Logic can become a rather complicated area of study, but, as Jerome Bruner suggested, almost any ideas can be presented in an incomplete, but comprehensible form and then expanded later. David Hume, a seminal philosopher in the Western Intellectual Tradition, discusses logic in a way that we can use, even with third graders. Without realizing it, many teachers are already doing this.
Hume divides thought into two areas -- perceptions and logical apprehensions. He then divides logical apprehensions into three types -- identity, extension, and cause/effect. According to Hume, all logical relationships fall into these three categories. It is interesting, and very probably instructional, to look at syntactic relationships in terms of them. The following discussion is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive.
The often maligned definition of a noun as the name of a person, place or thing is, of course, incomplete, but it does point to the basic function of nouns -- they name (identify) what thing or concept a speaker or writer has in mind. The problem with the definition, unfortunately, is that verbs also "name." "Run" is the name (identity label?) for a concept, so if I say "He runs," I am actually naming two things, "he" and "runs," in order to express a relationship between those two things. Traditional textbooks avoid this philosophical complication by saying that verbs "express" or "show" action or a state of being, but in order to communicate it, the verbs also have to name (identify) it. The philosophical ramifications of this can become very complex, but my basic point is that nouns and verbs, as words, basically communicate identity.
In order to emphasize the syntactic relationships among words and the psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language, KISS Grammar usually uses the term "chunks to" instead of "modifies." The traditional term, however, expresses a basic function of many adjectives and adverbs -- they "modify" the meaning of the words they chunk to. This process is usually described as "adding" meaning, but the addition is often a matter of elimination in order to clarify identity. If, for example, someone says "Go to the yellow house on Fourth Street." they are not interested in the "yellowness" of the house except to the extent that it means "not the green house, and not the brown houses, and not the white houses, etc." Likewise with verbs, if one says "He runs slowly," "slowly" further identifies the kind of "run" that the speaker has in mind. A great deal of "modification," in other words, falls under Hume's category of "identity."
The S/V/PN and S/V/PA patterns
One of the primary reasons that
KISS looks at the basic clause as a subject / verb / complement pattern
is that the purpose of the subject / verb / predicate noun pattern is to
express identity -- "Paula is a writer." Two very obvious places in which
grammar, logic and writing can be integrated are in the teaching of definitions
Definitions, especially formal definitions, are expressed through a S/V/PN pattern. When asked to define X, students often use verbs such as "has" or "does," but they miss the essential point -- What is X? We can, of course, tell them to use a sentence such as "X is ....," but such instruction is isolated from any context. In the KISS Approach, students find complements by asking a question with the verb plus "what?" If something answers that question, they know they have found a complement. Then, to determine what kind of complement they are dealing with, the first questions they ask are "Does the complement describe the subject?" and "Is the complement, in some way, equal to the subject?" -- in other words, they ask questions of identity.
A similar situation occurs in literature when students are asked to characterize. A literary characterization is primarily a collection and elaboration of relevant nouns and adjectives, which are then attributed to the person being characterized through a series of predicate nouns and predicate adjectives. Forcing students to use predicate nouns and adjectives in their writing of a characterization has the interesting effect of forcing them into putting more thought into their work in order to make it more precise.
Normally, for example, if I ask students to characterize Phoenix in Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," they will simply tell me what she did. "She talked to herself." "She walked a long way." "She stole a nickel." But the requirement to use predicate nouns and adjectives raises questions -- Does the fact that she may have stolen a nickel, mean that she is a thief? To prove that she is a thief (which in this case is almost impossible), students are forced to look for other examples of theft -- and anything that might be related to it. Thus, in this story, the fact that the hunter says that he would give her a dime if he had one becomes much more than "colorful" detail. He would have given her a dime -- she only took a nickel.
The advantages of this approach to teaching characterization extend into the structure and details in their writing. One of the most perplexing problems in teaching students to analyze literature is to get them away from simply retelling the story. A list of relevant nouns and adjectives can become focal points for the examples which students find to support them. In turn, the words in the list can become the topic sentences of paragraphs that are then developed by explaining the supporting examples. Unfortunately, this approach is currently difficult to use because most students cannot recognize nouns and adjectives.
Some subordinate clauses
Noun clauses that function as predicate nouns convey identity: "The question is what are we to do about it?" Likewise, many, if not most, adjectival clauses are intended to convey identity: In "The man whom I saw was tall," "whom I saw" identifies which man I am talking about.
Appositives, of course, are understood as further identifying something that has already been named: "He went to Paris, a town in Pennsylvania."
By "extension," Hume simply means extension in time and space. The following are a few of the syntactic constructions that express this relationship.
He walked for three miles. [space]
She read for three hours. [time]
They took Route 15, which goes from Williamsport to Corning. [space]
They had a party that lasted a week. [time]
Nouns Used as Adverbs
In a sentence such as "Tim is eight years old," the noun "years," modified by the adjective "eight," functions as an adverb to "old" and indicates extension in time.
Third grade teachers who ask students to revise something that they have written by adding prepositional phrases of time and space are, in effect, asking students to expand their focus on Hume's "extension." Similarly, asking third graders to revise by adding adjectives and adverbs improves the focus on identity in their writing.
Although Hume basically discusses "cause" and "effect," in syntax these two concepts are related to at least two others -- purpose and result. In essence, "purpose" is a "cause" looked at from a slightly different perspective; a "result" is an effect.
The obvious candidates here are "because of" and "for." ("Because of his mother's birthday, he could not go to Texas." "Sam went to the store for milk.")
Infinitives of Purpose
Laura stayed home to write a paper.
Because he needed money, Bob worked hard. [Cause]
He worked very hard so that he would earn a lot. [Purpose]
Bob worked so hard that he lost his mind. [Effect / Result]
Note that clauses of condition ("if") and concession ("although") are also related to cause and effect. An "if" clause presents a necessary, so to speak, cause: "You can go if your mother says so." Mother's saying that you can is a necessary cause of your being able to go. An "although" clause, on the other hand, presents a cause which readers or listeners would have expected to preclude the content of the main clause: "Although it rained, they still had their yard sale." We would have expected the yard sale to cause them to cancel.
Walker Gibson's Model T Style Machine:
Connecting Grammar to Style, Audience, and Tone
Whereas teachers can use Hume's
theory to connect grammar to logic, Walker Gibson's Tough, Sweet and
Stuffy is filled with ideas for connecting grammar to style, audience,
and tone. Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Gibson's book
is that there is no one "good style." Most discussions about improving
students' writing imply, but never define, a good style. The general assumption
is usually that students should write longer main clauses, with a greater
variety of grammatical constructions, deeper levels of embedding, with
a minimal use of the passive voice. The accompanying implication is that
we should train students to write this way, without giving the students
the analytical ability to make stylistic decisions for themselves. Gibson,
on the other hand, distinguishes three different styles (Tough, Sweet,
and Stuffy) and ends up with a style machine with sixteen countable criteria
(134-135). Along the way, he gives lots of examples, and discusses the
implications of, each of the criteria.
Gibson presents an interesting counter-argument to Christensen's belief that subordination should be right-branching, i.e., after the main subject / verb pattern. Gibson suggests that left-branching (subordination before the main subject / verb) implies a more organized mind. He argues that in order to write a "dependent" clause before the main subject and verb, the writer must already have in mind what it depends on. Right branching, on the other hand, can be a matter of putting an idea on paper and then tacking on afterthoughts (129).
Gibson would probably also challenge another "strong point" of Faigley's research -- length of main clauses. (See Chapter Two.) According to Hillocks, "Stepwise regression showed length and percent of T-units [main clauses] with final free modifiers to be the two most important variables associated with quality ...." (147) Gibson would probably want to know whose "quality" -- that of the Tough writer, of the Sweet writer, or the Stuffy Writer? Although his style machine does not include a count of words per main clause, it does count words per "included" (subordinate) clauses. He gives the following figures: Tough writers - 8 words; Sweet writers, 7 words, Stuffy writers - 18 words. (135). In other words, the longer, the stuffier.
Easily readable, Gibson's is a book that teachers will probably want to keep handy because it is packed, not only with ideas, but also with examples of stylistic analyses and questions that students could easily discuss. He notes that his style machine is a "Model T" -- a beginning for a way to analyze styles. The criteria he presents, however, are almost all easily usable in our classrooms (at, of course, different levels). The first two are the proportion of monosyllables and words of more than two syllables in the passage. Although this is not directly related to grammar, it suggests a class groupwork assignment that could probably be used, with some help from the teachers, as early as third or fourth grade. When this exercise is used with older students, teachers might want to give the students a brief explanation of this aspect of Gibson's style machine, and then let the students discuss both their own results and the validity of the machine. (According to Gibson, for example, 78% of "tough" writers' words are monosyllabic, compared to 68% for "sweet," and 56% for "stuffy.") Note also that this exercise gives students meaningful practice in syllabification, and it also integrates the teaching of English and math.
Gibson's third criterion involves how many first-person and second-person pronouns a passage contains. Overall, he suggests that first-person is "tough"; second person, "sweet"; third-person, stuffy. His distinction could be an interesting way of approaching a problem that we, as a profession, have not dealt with very well. Some teachers tell their students never to use first person; others forbid the use of second. In spite of all such instruction, however, most of our students get to college without knowing the difference. There, they have instructors -- in disciplines other than English -- who tell them not to use first person. Good students have told me that they have had papers either marked down a grade or returned to them for rewriting, because they used first-person pronouns. The fault for that is ours. Our fault is not in forbidding, or not forbidding, the use of such pronouns, but rather in our not teaching students to recognize the differences so that they can adapt to different requirements. Gibson's style machine offers an exercise that would make the grammatical concept of "person" meaningful.
The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh criteria in Gibson's machine can all be used in middle school. The fourth involves the number of subjects of finite verbs that are neuter nouns as opposed to nouns that refer to people. (Neuter nouns suggest stuffy style.) Fifth is the proportion of finite verbs to total words. Sixth -- the proportion of finite verbs that are forms of "to be." Seventh -- the proportion of verbs that are passive. Students who are being taught to identify these constructions could do an exercise in which they analyze their own writing, count the various constructions, and come up with class averages. If there is time, it is even more helpful to have the class analyze passages from selected types of published writing. To describe a process, for example, passive voice is often preferable, and students can be led to see this for themselves. Such instruction would be far more meaningful than exhortations and prohibitions.
Adjectives are the subject of Gibson's eighth, ninth, and tenth criteria. He makes a distinction between "true" adjectives and "noun adjuncts"
you call a particular modifier an adjective when you can transpose the construction in which it appears into a sentence pattern using be or seem. Thus "the tall children" can be transposed into "the children are tall" or "the children seem tall." Furthermore you can inflect the modifier: taller children, tallest children. Tall then is a true adjective. But the noun adjunct school children won't work. "The children were school." "Schooler children." "The schoolest children seemed school." (78)According to Gibson, in stuffy style, 5% of the words are noun adjuncts, as opposed to 1% for tough and 4% for sweet. At some point, teachers may want to introduce this distinction, not as a definition and rule for itself, but rather as a tool for discussing style. The same is true for Gibson's ninth criterion, the number of adjectives modified by adverbs. He primarily has in mind the word "very." I once had a teacher who told me not to use that word. But students can make such judgments themselves -- if we give them the conceptual tools with which such judgments can be intelligently discussed.