11/29/2004
 
The KISS Grammar Workbooks Back to October Menu

Notes for Teachers and Parents
Preposition? Adverb? Or Part of the Verb?

      The littlest words often cause the biggest problems. Because KISS formally begins by teaching students to recognize prepositions and prepositional phrases, you are going to run into a problem. Students will tend to mark any word that can function as if it is a preposition. Most words that function as prepositions may also function as subordinate conjunctions, adverbs, or part of the verb itself. We have already not only looked at those that can function as subordinate conjunctions, but we have also noted how students can begin to distinguish the preposition from the subordinate conjunction:

If whatever answers the question "[Preposition word] + What?" is a sentence, then the "preposition word" is not a preposition:
1.) We saw them before the game.
2.) We saw them before they played the game.

In (1), "before" functions as a preposition; in (2), the answer to the question "Before what?" is "Before they played the game." Since "They played the game" is an acceptable sentence, in (2), "before" does not function as a preposition. (In KISS Level Three, students will learn that it is a subordinate conjunction. As always in KISS, the meaning of a sentence helps students determine how to analyze it.
     Textbooks and grammarians, we might note, rarely, if ever deal with this problem, for the simple reason that they are not interested in teaching students how to analyze sentences. They are interested in categories and categorization. Thus they give students a list of "prepositions" (if and when they teach prepositional phrases), and they give students "subordinate conjunctions" when they teach subordinate clauses. Students are given a few sentences, from which any problematic sentences have been excluded, and instruction ends. 
     The meaningless (and thoughtless) categorizing orientation of most grammarians is also reflected in how they deal with other aspects of the "Is it a preposition?" problem. In the KISS Grammar book manuscript that was rejected by NCTE, I attempted to explain how a focus on meaning and on the concept of ellipsis can help students determine when a "preposition word" is or is not a preposition:

         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 ...." 
The response of the reviewers was interesting. Instead of looking at how students can make the distinction, which was my, and and should be our objective, they looked at what the distinction is. And, of course, they wanted a name for it. Thus one reviewer objected that "put on" is a "phrasal verb." In a subsequent discussion on the ATEG list, some grammarians agreed; others wanted to call it a "verb plus particle"; still others wanted to call the "on" a "verbal tag." 
     What is funny -- and silly, -- and sad, about this discussion is that the grammarians were disagreeing about the name of the phenomena -- but not one of them was looking at how students might learn not to consider "on your thinking cap" as a prepositional phrase. Calling "put on" a "phrasal verb" does not help -- there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of "phrasal verbs" in English. Are students expected to learn them all? (None of the grammar books even attempts to list them.) 
     The instructional material for this section presents, I would suggest, a much better alternative. If you or your students find terms such as "phrasal verb" helpful, then perhaps you should use them, but you should be warned -- the research that demonstrates that the teaching of grammar is harmful is almost entirely based on the fact that too much terminology is overwhelming and thus confusing. The more grammatical terms that you use, the more confused many of your students will be. 
 
Instructional Material for Students

An Additional Problem -- and an Eventual Solution for It

     A member of the KISS List asked two very interesting, complex questions about the function of "of" in following sentence:

It's kind of like a big wooden wheel that you spin on.
The first question was --  How does one explain to a student that "of like a big wooden wheel" is not a prepositional phrase? As always in KISS, the focus should be on meaning. The "simple" answer to the question is that "kind of" means "somewhat." Thus the "of" meaningfully goes with the "kind" and is therefore not a preposition. In this case, however, the simple answer is probably too simplistic. Young students, especially students who are just beginning to deal with prepositional phrases, may not be ready to deal with this distinction. 
     Note that the psycholinguistic model of how the human brain processes language also suggests how much we can learn at one time. Students who are focussing on how to recognize prepositions are using most of the seven slots in short-term memory just to handle the list of possible prepositions. Then, of course, there are several complications. Expecting students to master them all immediately is probably asking too much. That is why, in the KISS Approach, students are expected to make mistakes. In this particular case, I probably would have told the student that "kind of" (and "sort of") mean "somewhat." I would have added that I expect the student to have problems with that, and then I would have tried to shift the student's attention to all the phrases that the student can already clearly identify. If needed, I would have noted to the student that all young children say "Mommy readed the book." We all, in other words, learn the basic rules first, and then can focus on the exceptions.
     If the students are at KISS Level Two (S/V/C patterns), I might deal with the question differently. The original sentence is:
It's kind of like a big wooden wheel that you spin on.
Since "It's" means "It is," the question becomes What is the complement? Here again we resort to meaning. If "of like a big wooden wheel" is a prepositional phrase, that leaves "kind" to serve as the complement, but does the sentence mean "It is kind"? Or does it mean "It is like a big wooden wheel"? The second, of course, makes more sense, and note that this analysis clarifies even further that the "of" chunks with "kind."
     The second question raised about the sentence is whether or not "kind of" is "bad grammar." I am strongly tempted to agree that it is, but we need to be careful here. In this context, "good" or "bad" grammar is a question of usage, not syntax. I know at least one college professor who automatically crosses out "kind of" in cases such as this one, and I have probably done so myself. It is, so the argument goes, "wordy." But "kind of" does mean "somewhat" and also "a little." I doubt that any instructor would cross out either of these in:
It's somewhat like a big wooden wheel that you spin on.
It's a little like a big wooden wheel that you spin on.
My reservation here is simply that students might well find, in their analysis of randomly selected texts, "kind of" being used in this way by widely recognized writers. We would then find ourselves in the same position as those teachers who claim that one should not begin a sentence with "But."
This border is based on "The Libyan Sibyl" from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.