Syntax, Style, and the Psycholinguistic Model
Psycholinguistic Model justifies a wide variety of judgments about
the syntactic aspects of writing style.Because it explains syntax as a
fundamental aspect of the transmission of meaning from writer to
reader, the model enables students to view the impact of their syntax from
the readers' point of view. Decisions about style can thus be made with
an eye on what the readers expect, as well as on what the writer wants
"Regularly" here requires some explanation, lest some teachers overemphasize the model. In analyzing sentences with my students, for example, we do not usually discuss what every adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase chunks to. To do so would waste time and ultimately become boring. Insteadm we start work with clauses, and will do so by working through, sentence by sentence, three or four short essays written by students.
I introduce the model at this point because it explains why, in analyziing clauses, we have to explain how every subordinate clause chunks to a word outside itself, i.e., functions as a noun, a complement, an object, or a modifier within another clause. In the process of reviewing homework, however, we first identify all the prepositional phrases in a sentence, but we do not look at what each chunks to. Then the students identify every finite verb, its subject(s), and its complement(s). If there is only one S/V/C pattern in a sentence, the students simply put a vertical line after the sentence and move on the to next sentence. If, however, there is more than one such pattern, the students have to identify the subordinate and main clauses. They do so by putting brackets around subordiante clauses and, in following the psycholinguistic model, either labelling their function (Subject, Complement, etc.) or drawing an arrow from the opening bracket to the word the clause modifies. With the clauses explained, we move on to the next sentence; we don't have time to analyze every word and every prepositional phrase.
Occasionally, however, I do lead the students through a more detailed analysis. One of the passages, for example, contains the sentence:
The madrigal group (from my high school) (in Moorestown, New Jersey), had been invited to go (on a three-week tour) (of Poland) to help create a better relationship (between communist countries and the United States.)With only three weeks (nine class hours) to deal with all of the syntax materials, we do not focus on adjectives and adjectives per se. Instead, I simply ask students what "The" chunks to. They know it goes with "group," as does "madrigal." "[F]rom my high school" also chunks to "group," whereas "In Moorestown, New Jersey" chunks to "high school." They also can tell me that "to go" chunks to the verb "had been invited," and that "on a three-week tour" chunks to "to go." Although we have not dealt with infinitive, they can also tell me, after a little thought, that "to help" chunks to "to go" or to "had been invited" because it answers the question "why?" Likewise they know that "create" chunks to "to help," that "a" and "better" chunk to "relationship," and that "relationship is the direct object of "create." Finally, of course, they can tell me that "between communist countries and the United States" chunks to "relationship."
Such a detailed analysis, however, consumes valuable class time. I do it occasionally to remind students of how much they do already know, and to reinforce the idea that we are studying how the mind processes (chunks) incoming language. The idea of the brain's chunking everything to a main S/V/C pattern, and then dumping the contents of that pattern to long-term memory, is crucial for the students understanding of the stylistic aspects of syntax. One need not, however, explain every word in every sentence in the homework in order to reinforce that principle. Once students are comfortable with the principle, they can begin to understand several aspects of the relationships between syntax and style.
As they work with students on syntax
and style, teachers will find many other ways in which a writer's syntax
creates style. One of the most obvious, for example, is the tendency of
some students to begin every sentence with the simple subject: " Bill went
to the store. He .... He ...." I'm not sure, however, that we need to teach
students to avoid this. Once their attention has been focussed on the question
of syntax and style, as they analyze various passages, they will begin
to sense the rhythms and, in all probability, naturally begin to adjust
their own style. If they don't, teachers can make suggestions to individual
students. There is probably no reason to devote precious class time to
all aspects of style, many of which have already been mastered by most
of the students.