In the 60's and 70's, Kellogg Hunt, Roy O'Donnell, and Walter Loban did some significant research which demonstrates that students' command of sentence structure develops naturally (i.e., without our instruction) throughout their years in school. Among other things, these researchers showed that most children develop command of the subordinate clause between seventh and ninth grades. Some constructions, such as the appositive and gerundive (participle) develop AFTER the subordinate clause. Unfortunately, the work of these researchers was never pursued.
Their work was laborious and expensive. In essence, they collected and analyzed hundreds of samples of writing from students at different grade levels. There are, as anyone who has been involved in such research knows, many problems associated with it, including
Such a database could include hundreds of samples of students' writing from each grade level. With it, we could get a much better understanding of such things as students' growing sense of organization, vocabulary, etc. We could also further our understanding of natural syntactic growth so that instruction in grammar could be designed to support, rather than obstruct, natural development.
Current instruction may be harmful. As noted above, Hunt etc. have shown that the appositive is a "late-blooming" construction, appearing after the development of subordinate clauses, perhaps as late as 10th grade. Imagine, then, the possible effect of asking second graders to combine the following two sentences:
For adults, the natural combination is "Mary, a biologist, studies plants." But for second graders, the appositive is not even near what Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development," i.e., it is not a construction which second graders can consciously master. And in this particular example, the second graders are also being asked to place that appositive BETWEEN the subject and its verb. Some research has shown that even much later than second grade, many students rarely separate the subject from the verb. This exercise, in other words, probably has two results: 1) it frustrates the children, making them hate both grammar and school, and 2) by forcing the students to develop sentences in ways that do not make sense to them, it teaches students that sentences do not have to make sense (to the student). Is it, then, any wonder that, later in these students' schooling, teachers get such nonsensical writing and sentence structure from them?
Some educators have objected that children use all the constructions in English even before they enter school. Although this is true, it does not reflect mastery of those constructions. In Roy O'Donnell's terms, they are "formulas." For example, the child who says "Uncle Bob" may be said to be using an appositive, but it is not a true appositive -- it is a phrase that has been digested and regurgitated. The same occurs with subordinate clauses such as "When ___ get(s) home." Children hear this combination of words hundreds of times, and they learn to use them as formulas. The exact nature of formulas should be further explored. But there are numerous other questions that need exploration. Some of them follow. More will be added.
Noun Clauses Used as Subjects ["That he was late is true."]
That she accepted his ring made him happy.
She accepted his ring, which made him happy.
For most of the syntactic errors that I have run across, I have found an explanation (which is not the same as a cure). One error in particular continues to stump me -- the use of "in which." The following two examples are from the same essay, written by a college Freshman.
There are many other fallacies in this essay which weaken it, but the argument in which the author makes is relevant and should be taken into very high consideration.
My initial sense, probably comparable to the initial sense of most English teachers, is that students who misspell words such as "its," "their" and "then" learned the language orally. Because they did not SEE these words used correctly thousands of times in their reading, they spell them entirely based on sound -- which leaves the students with a 50/50 (33/67 in the case of "their") chance of getting the word right. It might be interesting to see, however, if there is a correlation between committing the error and the ability to recognize subjects and verbs. On a simple level, this could be tested by collecting several samples of students writing, noting which students make the error, and then giving students a simple test to see if they can recognize subjects and finite verbs. On a longer term level, it will be interesting to see if students who are taught for several years through the KISS approach (which will force them to be able to recognize subjects and verbs) will eliminate such errors on their own.
There is, however, still another aspect to these errors. How well do the people who make these errors think? Thinking is establishing relationships between ideas. In "it's" and "they're," the relationship is one of predication, as opposed to possession (expressed, of course, through "its" and "their"). With "then," the relationship is either temporal or conditional (if .. . . then), whereas "than" is used for comparison. The question, in other words, is are the errors superficial (spelling) or are they a reflection of a deeper, more serious problem (thinking). I'm not sure of how a research project could address this, particularly because in many cases students don't care about their writing -- they hand in papers because they have to hand something in -- i.e., they haven't even tried to think.