Textbooks are not written by the experts -- they are compilations of what sells. And the textbooks are no more help than are the professors. Probably the most widely used grammar textbook is Warriner's, so for my primary example, I'll use Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, Fourth Course (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). Although I have seen more current versions of this text, the basic problems persist, and I want to use this one because it was loaned to me by a local teacher as a sample of the texts that they are using. This text is used with tenth through twelfth grade students. The main problem with all of these texts is that the definitions are poorly thought out and usually illustrated by simplistic examples which (perhaps intentionally?) leave out real examples which don't fit the poor definitions. To be fair to Warriner's, the problems in some other textbooks are discussed at the end of this essay.
Textbook Definitions of "Clause"
The Warriner's text provides a definition
at the beginning of Chapter Four: "4a. A clause is a group of words
that contains a verb and its subject and is used as part of a sentence."
(81) Here we are told that a clause is "part" of a sentence. But on the
following page, after the definition of independent clauses (which we will
get to below), we are told "Each of the following sentences is the same
as an independent clause. . . ." (82) This tells us, if nothing else, that
definition 4a was, at best, incomplete. There we were told that a clause
is part of a sentence. Here we are told that it can be the whole sentence.
In itself, this is a minor problem, since these special clauses have been
labeled as "independent."
There is another major problem that is nowhere addressed in Warriner's. A clause contains a verb and its subject, my emphasis. That should mean that the following sentence contains two clauses:
He asked Mary to help him with his math homework.
It has, after all, two verbs, and each verb has a subject: He asked and Mary to help. Those who already understand clauses, in the traditional sense # 1, (and in the sense used in this textbook) know that "Mary to help" is not the core of a clause. But the students have no way of knowing this. And the only reason that students don't throw the books out the window is that we rarely teach students to identify verbs in the first place. Thus most students couldn't see the problem in the definition, and those who do, have learned simply to grin and ignore it.
Clauses and "Complete" Thoughts
Getting a handle on the problems here is not easy, but let's begin by looking at Warriner's definitions:
"4b. An independent (or main) clause expresses a complete thought and can stand by itself." (81)
"4c. A subordinate (or dependent) clause does not express a complete thought and cannot stand by itself." (82)
We'll ignore the fact that the text strangely pairs "independent" with
"subordinate" and "main" with "dependent." The fact that it does so is
simply another reflection of the lack of thought that went into the definitions.
He was late.
Out of context, every main clause must therefore be a subordinate clause. And, from the opposite perspective, isn't "because no students have applied for them" a complete thought when read in a transcript of a conversation?
Why didn't we give away those two scholarships?
My point, of course, is that the definition of an independent (main)
clause as a "complete thought" is meaningless unless one can already identify
independent clauses -- in which case the definition is not needed.
Which one of them is "complete"? "He thought" cannot be, for it has
a complement [she would make a good president], and complement means "completer."
But "she would make a good president" makes perfectly good sense as it
stands. Thus, in this sentence, "she would make a good president" is the
main clause. Right?
Main and Subordinate
One ought to wonder what the first person to
use the terms "independent" and "dependent" in relation to clauses was
thinking about -- if he was thinking at all. In terms of meaning, these
two terms are used backwards. Let's start with our usual example, "He thought
she would make a good president." "She would make a good president" in
no way depends on "He thought" for its meaning, but "He thought" certainly
depends on "she would make a good president" for its meaning. "Thought,"
here, does not mean "to think in general." Thus, although "he thought"
may "make sense," the sense it makes is not the sense that it expresses
in "He thought she would make a good president. In this sentence, "He thought"
on its complement. Thus, for the thinking students, "He thought" is
the dependent clause.
Grammar and Composition. Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall, 1990.
Once again students find a poor definition
of an independent clause: "An independent clause has a subject and a verb
and can stand by itself as a complete sentence." (147) And again they find
simplistic examples: "The bus arrived." About subordinate clauses,
students are told that "A subordinate clause has a subject and a verb but
cannot stand by itself as a sentence. It is only part of a sentence." (148)
It apparently never crossed the writers' minds that students might have
to deal with a sentence such as "He knew the bus arrived."
Writers Inc. D.C. Heath, 1996.
Writers Inc is primarily a composition text and does not pretend to be a grammar book. It is highly probable that the only reason that it includes a section on grammar is that the publisher demanded it -- to sell more books. The few pages devoted to sentences and clauses are thoughtless clippings from traditional verbiage:
An Independent clause presents a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence; a dependent clause does not present a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence. Dependent clauses do, however, add important detail to a sentence. (755)Unlike the writers of Prentice Hall's Grammar and Composition, these writers do at least acknowledge the existence of noun clauses. "A noun clause is used in place of a noun." (756) This explanation (quoted in full) is followed by a single example: "Whatever essay questions are included on the test will be from the last two chapters." The example is interesting because it demonstrates the fact that the writers have either not considered, or intentionally ignored, the question of whether or not a subordinate clause is part of its main clause. In the brief discussion of complex sentences, two examples are given, and students are told that the independent clause is in italics and dependent clauses are in boldface. One example is: "Youth seems past, however, when my back aches before the day is even half over." (759) It appears, therefore, that subordinate clauses are not part of the main clause. By implication, that means that the main clause in the example of a noun clause is "will be from the last two chapters." Is "will be from the last two chapters." a complete thought?
Writer's Choice: Composition and Grammar. Glencoe, 1993.
I was loaned the "Teacher's Wraparound Edition"
of this text. It is glossy, probably very expensive, and extremely heavy.
It also suffers from the same problems as do the texts discussed above.
The fragmentary nature of grammar instruction in almost all of these textbooks
can be illustrated in this one by the fact that, according to the index,
sentence fragments are explained on pages 504-505. But students are "instructed"
in how to correct them on pages 378-379. There is, in other words,
no logical sequence to the book.
"A quick test for fragments is to try to turn them into questions. Since fragments lack a subject or a complete verb, they will always fail this test." (504)This advice is thoughtless for two reasons. First, are the students who have trouble with fragments expected to reread what they wrote and try to turn every sentence that they wrote into a question? Is is easy enough for a textbook writer, or a grammarian, to look at a simple fragment, out of context, and to say, "Oh, I can tell that it is a fragment because, if I try to make a question out of it, I can't." But the students' problem is that they cannot sense a fragment in the first place. Thus, even to attempt to use this advice, students would have to test every sentence in what they wrote. The only reason that this advice is offered is that textbook writers (and most grammarians) deal with relatively simple sentences, out of context.
Second, the advice does not work. The people who are offering it are assuming that students will use a very specific set of linguistic transformations in their attempts to create the question. For example, consider the following three "sentences" from a student's writing:
(1) I also think that a person's attire should be appropriate for their position. (2) Such as a secretary, who is constantly in contact with customers, should dress professionally. (3) As opposed to postal worker who is rarely seen.The first sentence is not a fragment, but still, the student who has problems with fragments would have to test it. Which question is the student expected to create from it -- "Do I think?" or "Should a person's attire be appropriate?" As for the second sentence, the question is "Should a secretary . . . dress appropriately?" Having formed the question, the student moves on -- even though the sentence is a fragment. The same can be done with the third -- "Isn't this opposed to a postal worker who is rarely seen." The advice often doesn't work -- unless one already knows what a complete sentence is.
Writer's Choice shares the problems of the other textbooks in defining clauses:
"A main clause has a subject and a predicate and can stand alone as a sentence." (493)The simplistic examples throughout this section of the text use top brackets to suggest that subordinate clauses are not part of the main clause. Thus, in the first example, "Stories entertain" is marked as the main clause, and "because they are amusing" is marked as the subordinate.
And, as in most of the other texts, the discussion of noun clauses is poorly related to the discussion of main and subordinate clauses. Students are told that "A noun clause is a subordinate clause used as a noun." They are then given two examples of noun clauses: "Whoever lives on a farm eats home-grown food." and "A drought affects whatever grows outdoors." They are then told
"In the preceding examples each noun clause forms an inseparable part of the sentence's main clause (the entire sentence)." (501)Why "[i]n the preceding examples"? Isn't this true for all noun clauses? (And also for all adjectival and adverbial clauses?) Is this not true in the following sentence, which is given among three "additional examples of noun clauses"? --"Crops are fertilized with whatever will make them grow fast and strong." (502) The textbook doesn't explain.
A Short Course in Grammar, by Paul J. Hopper. W.W. Norton, 1999.
Unlike the preceding texts, A Short Course
is for college students, and it is specifically about grammar. It is, therefore,
the type of book that would be used in a course for future teachers. As
in most grammar books, the material to be studied is chopped up into
linguistic units, and little, if any attempt is made to enable students
to analyze real texts. Linguistic terms abound, and students get to Chapter
Twelve (of Seventeen) before they get to compound main clauses. I include
it here simply because of its definition of a clause "to qualify as a clause
a phrase must have a verb phrase or a recognizable form of a verb phrase,
such as an infinitive or a gerund." (213) As I noted previously, future
teachers are often subjected to this kind of confusion in their preparation
for teaching. It's no wonder that they hate grammar.
NTC's Guide to Grammar Terms, by Richard A. Spears NTC Publishing Group, 1997.
If I understand it correctly, this book was
meant as a resource for teachers -- to help them make some sense of the
muddle of grammatical terms that they find in the textbooks. Unfortunately,
it only adds to the confusion. Thus, under "main clause," we find "the
primary clause in a multiclause sentence; the primary independent clause
in a multiclause sentence." (106) Thinking about this stuff is enough to
give one a headache, but if one does, one eventually comes to realize that
this definition conflicts with all the textbooks (including most of those
discussed above) which equate a main clause with a simple sentence. According
to this book, a main clause can only occur in a sentence that has more
than one clause. The first example given is also interesting: "I
wanted to sing, but I didn't have the voice for it ." According to
the text, the main clause is in bold. This means that the "but" does not
(as most textbooks claim it does) separate two main clauses.
Perhaps the best way to end this survey of the confusion over the definition of "clause" is to quote, in full, Spears' entry under "clause":
any group of words that has a subject and a verb. (Many uses of clause refer to a clause that functions as a specific part of speech or other specific grammatical structure within another sentence. Some grammarians use phrase to include clause. Others use clause as if it had the definition found at phrase. Terms for various types of clauses are additive clause, adjective clause, adverb(ial) clause, causal clause, clause of concession, clause of condition, clause of degree, clause of manner, clause of place, clause of purpose, clause of result, clause of time, collateral clause, comment clause, comparative clause, complement(ary) clause, concessive clause, conditional clause, coordinate clause, defining relative clause, dependent clause, descriptive clause, determinative clause, essential clause, head clause, independent clause, infinitive clause, main clause, nominal clause, nondefining relative clause, nonessential clause, nonrestrictive clause, noun clause, parenthetical clause, principal clause, relative clause, restrictive clause, restrictive (relative) clause, subordinate clause, subordinate clause fragment, superordinate clause, verbless clause, wh-clause.) (27)The purpose of this list is unclear, but it's effect is certainly to confuse and dishearten. The list is an unsystematic compilation of terms from traditional grammar, transformational grammars, and others. Some of the terms could be helpful to students. Some of the terms are helpful within the grammars in which they originated. Others are totally useless. Together, they create chaos.
Isn't it time to burn the expensive, confusing grammar books, and start using the free, simple, and systematic KISS approach to clauses?
(Click here for an essay on Burning the Textbooks.)
The KISS definition of a clause is very simple: A clause is a subject / finite verb / complement pattern and all the words that modify it. This definition avoids all the nonsense about "complete thoughts." Its usefulness depends, of course, on the students' ability to identify subjects and finite verbs, but that is one of the reasons why the KISS curriculum is sequential. Students who spend the grammatical part of fourth, fifth, and sixth grades leaning to identify subjects and finite verbs will have no trouble with clauses in seventh, eighth, and ninth -- for each S/V/C pattern they have found in a sentence, they will have one clause.
Two Objections to the Definition -- Refuted
Two objections have been raised against this
definition, neither of which looks at the question from the students' point
of view. The first is an objection against the term "finite." Some grammarians
see the term as unnecessary, and many English teachers have never heard
of it. But as noted above, without it, "Mary to help him with his math
homework" fits the definition of a clause. In terms of function, all verbs
act either as finite verbs (the core of a clause) or as verbals (verbs
which act as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs). #4
When students are learning to identify finite verbs, they do not need to
(indeed should not) learn the details of verbals. They do, however, find
it very helpful to know that what they are looking for has a name,
a name which distinguishes it from those verbs that they are not currently
to consider. Here, as so often in the current teaching of grammar, the
problem arises because teachers do not have students analyze randomly selected
texts. Instead, they use the sentences in the grammar textbooks, and in
the textbooks, exercises devoted to identifying "verbs" do not contain
verbals. Then teachers wonder why students who did so well on the grammar
exercises cannot apply what they learned to their own reading and writing.
Such a representation, however, misrepresents the almost mathematical meaning of the S/V/PN pattern:
The practical reason for including the complement in the definition of a clause involves helping students learn to identify subjects and verbs in any sentence that they read or write (and not just in those sanitized -- and thus sterile? -- sentences in the textbooks). Most people remember being taught how to find the subject of a verb -- "To find the subject of a verb, make a question with 'Who" or "What' before the verb." The problem here is that the process is incomplete. It ignores two additional, necessary rules:
1. Objects of prepositions cannot be subjects of verbs -- ever.That these two additional rules are not taught simply reflects the fact that neither the textbooks nor the teachers expect students to be able to recognize prepositional phrases, or to apply their "instruction" in grammar to real texts.
The incomplete way in which the rule for finding subjects is taught leads students into making errors. Given the sentence
By including the complement in the definition of a clause, the KISS approach teaches students to find a verb, find its subject, and then to find its complement. As a result, complements are, so to speak, high-lighted in a position where they can be seen as such and thus excluded from consideration in finding the subject of other verbs. Simply put, "man" cannot be the subject of "stole" because it is the complement of "saw."
Subordinate and Main Clauses
Most grammar books work backwards, defining a main clause and then defining subordinate. The basic KISS definitions are:
A subordinate clause is a clause that functions as a noun, adjective or adverb in another clause.
A main clause has no such function. It includes all the subordinate clauses attached to it.The reason for beginning with the definition of the subordinate clause should be obvious -- a main clause is distinguished by the fact that it does not function as a subordinate clause.
The only reason for presenting these definitions as "basic" rather than as complete and absolute is that in analyzing real texts, students will occasionally run across a subordinate clause that functions as an interjection. Such subordinate clauses are rare (perhaps one in every two hundred), and, in the KISS approach, when students get to interjections, they can add "interjection" to the definition of the subordinate clause.
Unlike the sterile and confusing definitions in most textbooks, the KISS definition of clauses enables students to learn to identify the clause structure in any sentence that they read or write. As a result, they can learn both to edit out errors which involve clause boundaries (such as fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons), and to discuss many aspects of style (such as clause length and subordination) intelligently.
4. The objection to the term "finite" is often most strongly voiced by grammarians and linguists who fiercely propound the necessity of having students distinguish between "form" and "function." It seems ironic, therefore, that they object to a term which would help students make just such a distinction.