Cinderella's fairy godmother
changed her fortune primarily by 1) giving her a chance, 2) by changing
her self-image, and 3) by changing her style. As teachers, the KISS Approach
enables us to be our students' "godparents." In the process of using the
KISS Approach, teachers will find many opportunities to give students chances
to excel. Often, these chances will be related to opportunities to change
their attitudes towards grammar and towards their self-images. These opportunities
may be as simple as telling students about the "advanced constructions"
in their writing. We all blossom under the sunshine of praise, and KISS
offers many opportunities for it. More importantly, however, the KISS Approach
can provide students with the opportunity for substantive control of their
writing styles. In effect, it can eliminate the "pumpkin phenomenon."
Sentence Length and Variety
Two fundamental aspects of syntactic style are sentence (or, more precisely, main-clause) length and variety in the types of constructions that are used. Most textbooks either explain these aspects of style without enabling students to identify the underlying constructions, or they push students toward the authors' stylistic preferences as if the students were rats. [See Note #1.] Our students are not rats. They can all think, and they are perfectly capable of making stylistic decisions on their own -- especially if we give them the tools to do so. The fundamental KISS Approach to style, therefore, is to enable students to identify constructions, and then to give them examples -- from real texts -- of the various ways in which these constructions affect style.
The question of main-clause
length can be somewhat complex, but that it is an aspect of style is
fairly obvious. Young writers write shorter main clauses, and thus shorter
main clauses, in general, suggest a less mature mind behind the writing.
Research by Hunt, Loban, and O'Donnell suggests that, on average, third
graders use 7.6 words per main clause. Sixth and seventh graders use nine;
twelfth graders use fourteen, and professional writers use twenty. (Click
here for more on this.) Years of analyzing the writing of my college
Freshmen indicate that they average 15.5. However, we need to remember
that these numbers reflect group averages. Some college Freshmen average
nine, whereas others average 25.
Variety in sentence structure
is, without doubt, a stylistic asset. Fourth graders and far too many college
Freshmen write using primarily simple S/V/C patterns. The problem, however,
is that most attempts to help students develop a more varied style simply
end in confusion, and even, perhaps, more errors. Typically, for example,
primary school teachers attempt to get students to vary sentence
structure by having them begin some sentences with prepositional phrases.
But since students are never effectively taught to identify prepositional
phrases in the first place, this SR conditioning has little, if any, long-term
positive effect. It may, however, add to confusion and frustration. Thus
a father wrote to me to complain that his daughter's teacher was making
her begin some sentences with prepositional phrases. He was upset because
he was sure that when he was in school he was taught that beginning a sentence
with a prepositional phrase is an error. It seems probable that this father
confused prepositional phrases with that
silly rule about not beginning a sentence with "But."
Another fundamental aspect of
texture, may be the most important. I start my
presentation on texture by asking students what the word means -- outside
the context of grammar. To help, I suggest that they consider some examples
-- the texture of the window glass, the texture of a wall, the texture
of the rug, the texture of someone's sweater. It usually does not take
students long to name some textures -- soft, hard, smooth, rough. Then
I ask them to explain why some things are smooth and others rough. This
usually takes the class a lot longer. Finally, someone will point out that
the fundamental difference is surface structure. If we consider something
to be smooth, our sense of touch cannot perceive any bumps on it -- the
surface is flat, whereas if we consider a surface to be rough, we can feel
bumps or ridges on it. I usually draw a flat and a wavy line on the board
to illustrate the difference, and the class as a whole usually agrees with
1) Aluminum, which is an abundant metal, has many uses.By subordinating some of the ideas, the first example foregrounds "uses," thereby suggesting that "uses" is the main idea that will be developed. The second example suggests that abundance will be the focus of what follows. The focus of the third example is "metal." The fourth example is even more texturally complex in that it establishes aluminum as a metal and then suggests that two aspects of this metal will probably be further developed -- its abundance and it uses. In the fifth example, on the other hand, "abundant" has been reduced to an adjective modifying metal. Having read this version, most readers would not expect any development of "abundant."
There are, of course, many other ways in which the ideas in the three sentences from the "Aluminum" passage can be combined. The point, however, is that because it teaches students to identify constructions such as subordinate clauses, the KISS Approach enables students to explore and discuss such questions and to arrive at their own conclusions. Some grammarians and linguists, for example, have objected to the KISS emphasis on MIMC (main ideas in main clauses). They point to numerous exceptions (which is what most grammarians and linguists are concerned with). Fortunately, at least some of these grammarians admit that MIMC is a valid basic principle, but the problem with all of these people with whom I have discussed this question is that they do not seem to care about the fact that most students cannot identify clauses in the first place. The KISS Approach enables students to do so.
Two other problems with the teachers who object to the MIMC principle are that they provide only isolated sentences as examples, and they provide no theoretical justification for their position. Wanda Van Goor, at Prince George's Community College, has provided an excellent example of the MIMC principle in the "Alicia" exercise. In it, students are given seven compounded sentences and are asked to revise the passage by subordinating the ideas in one of the main clauses in each sentence. They are to do so by supporting one of two possible topic sentences:
a) In spite of her many problems, Alicia won the contest
for Prom Queen.
The supporting sentences are:
1. Her boyfriend, Ralph, had lots of influence as the captain of the football team, and he almost missed the deadline for nominating her.Students end up with two significantly different paragraphs, one of which emphasizes Alicia's winning, whereas the other emphasizes the problems.
The KISS psycholinguistic model also supports the MIMC principle. The model suggests that every word (except interjections) in every main clause is chunked to another word or construction until everything is chunked to the S/V/C pattern in the main clause. Psycholinguistically, therefore, every word and construction faces toward (and thus puts focus on) the words in the main clause S/V/C pattern. Clearly, syntactic texture affects the focus of any text. It foregrounds some words and ideas, and pushes others to the background. Specific textural patterns, such as parallel constructions, can greatly enhance the clarity and logic of a text.
The phrase "parallel constructions"
refers to placing equivalent ideas into parallel (equivalent) grammatical
constructions. A good example is Lincoln's "government of the people, by
the people, for the people. . . ." A non-parallel statement of this idea
would be "the people's government that they control for their own purposes."
In the non-parallel example, the three ideas expressed by Lincoln in the
three prepositional phrases have been scattered into a possessive noun
used as an adjective, a subordinate clause, and a prepositional phrase.
Parallel constructions suggest thoughtful, controlled writing (or speaking),
and they are usually appreciated by readers (or listeners). They are especially
important in thesis, focal, and topic sentences where they often lay out
the structure of the entire essay, a section of the essay, or a paragraph.
Some Direct Implications of Texture for Teaching Writing
The thesis sentence is the most important in any essay, but many students have problems, not just with the concept of "thesis sentence," but also with their construction. The texture of a thesis sentence is very important because it sets the readers' expectations, and thus the focus for the entire paper. The following excellent example is from a student's paper that I use as a model for the first major assignment in my Freshman composition course:
Almost every FTD rose arrangement can be made-to-order within a pattern; however, there are exceptions, including color dependent and dried arrangements.If you could read the entire essay, you would see that this sentence lays out the entire structure of the paper. (Some teachers call this type of thesis an "essay map.") This is a very simple type of thesis.
But it is a very effective type of thesis, especially for papers in other courses. Instructors in psychology, metal working, biology, and carpentry, for example, usually assign broad topics for papers. Students are expected to narrow that topic, focus it, and then show the instructor how much they understand about their chosen topic. In this situation, thesis, focal, and topic sentences are crucial. In effect, these sentences state "I'm going to show you what I know about _____." The sentences in the body of each paragraph then demonstrate that knowledge. If these sentences are missing, or poorly focussed, then the instructor has little, if any, idea of what the details in the paragraph are supposed to demonstrate. Grades will suffer. Thus one of the first places to work with students on syntactic texture is the thesis sentences of their papers.
"I think" and "I believe"
What students are often taught
about the use of "I" is troublesome. Some students are simply, and incorrectly
taught never to use it. In many circumstances, dependent on audience and
purpose, the first person pronoun is perfectly acceptable. Here, however,
we are concerned with the textural implications of "I think" and
"I believe." Many students fill their papers with these subject / verb
combinations, usually at the beginning of sentences. They thereby make
the "I think" or "I believe" the subject and verb of the main clause. The
preceding discussion of MIMC suggests that, by doing so, the students make
their thinking or believing the focus of the paper, thereby distracting
from the topic of the paper. (Strike One.) It also indicates that the students
do not understand that an essay or paper automatically conveys the thoughts
and beliefs of the writer. (Strike Two.)
a) Sally would be a good president.The first example is obviously the thought or belief of the person who wrote it. Thus (b) does not add anything to (a), but it does shift the focus to the writer. In (c), the "I think" will be read by most readers as an indication of some doubt on the part of the writer. In effect, it says, "I do not know. If you push me on this point, I may be wrong." In a written text, in other words, good writers will use "I think" or "I believe" to flag arguments that they realize are weaker than all the other arguments that they have not so flagged. (Not all arguments are equal.)
Note what this means, however, for the students who fill papers with "I think" and "I believe" at the beginnings of sentences. Not only does it shift the focus to them as the writers, but it also screams "I'm not sure about what I am writing about!" And, if the writer does not have confidence in his or her own ideas, why should anyone else take the time to read the paper?
Walker Gibson's Tough, Sweet and Stuffy
Walker Gibson's Tough, Sweet
and Stuffy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966) is an easily readable book,
but it is a book that you will probably want to keep handy because it is
packed, not only with ideas, but also with examples of stylistic analyses
and questions that you may want to have your students use. I also like
Gibson's approach to the use of statistics. He uses a fair number of them,
but unlike the educational researchers, he is not interested in a posture
of statistical "validity." The educational researchers often look very
impressive with their "T-tests," "stepwise regressions," etc., but when
one looks at what they have counted, how, why, and what it means, one is
often left empty, especially since one does not usually have access to
the texts that were analyzed. Gibson, on the other hand, gives us the texts,
and he uses simple counts and percentages to make his points.
The seventh criterion is the proportion of
verbs that are passive. Within the KISS framework, in which students are
actually taught how to identify passive verbs in the firsts place, students
can actually use this criterion themselves. Have the students work in small
groups to measure the "passive ratio" in different kinds of texts -- newspaper
articles, essays, business communications, explanations of processes, etc.
To find the ratio, students would count the number of passive finite verbs
(verb phrases count as one, and the number of active verbs and phrases.
The ratio would be the number of passives divided by the total number.
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)This distinction between "true" adjectives and noun adjuncts is not part of KISS. But Gibson's distinction here gives me the chance to explain, from a slightly different perspective, how KISS differs from traditional approaches to teaching grammar, including those that claim to be new and linguistic. The traditional approach is to teach the rules of grammar, isolated from how they are used and what they imply. Gibson, however, uses the distinction to suggest an aspect of stuffy style. In stuffy style, 5% of the words are noun adjuncts, as opposed to 1% for tough and 4% for sweet. At some point within the KISS sequence, therefore, 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 such judgments can be made by students themselves -- if we give them the conceptual tools with which such judgments can be intelligently discussed.
The next three criteria are appropriate for KISS Level Three. KISS actually suggests a lot more that can be done with clauses, but Gibson includes # 11) length of included (i.e., subordinate) clauses, # 12) the proportion of total passage inside such clauses, and #13) the number of words separating subjects from their verbs. High average length, high proportion, and large separation are, according to Gibson, all reflections of stuffy style. I urge you to read his book for the details and the reasoning. My point here is that, within the KISS Approach, these are all questions which students can study, discuss in class, and then decide for themselves.
Gibson's fourteenth criterion
is of particular interest for the debates about what grammar should be
taught, why, and how. It involves the frequency of the "determiner the."
Within the "pro-grammar" community, the linguists want determiners
taught as a separate part of speech. As always, the reasoning is
complex, and I can understand why ESL students (who have particular problems
with them) need to see determiners as a separate category (but I would
keep it as a sub-category of adjectives). For native speakers of English,
however, the distinction may simply add to the grammatical clutter and
confusion. The linguists argument, to the extent that I understand it,
is that determiners function differently than do "adjectives." This is
true, but once we let them start down this path, the linguists make all
kinds of distinctions -- in all parts of speech. They make so many distinctions
that all of our students' time will be spent in studying their [the linguists']
categories, with none left to focus on those that are stylistically interesting
The last two of Gibson's criteria involve fragments, contractions, parentheses, italics, dashes, question marks, and exclamation points. Punctuation can be taught at various levels within the KISS Approach. The important thing to note here is that Gibson considers these as characteristics of different styles, not as "do's" and "don't's." He suggests, throughout the book, that the three styles are extremes, often used for different purposes. His examples of "tough" are primarily from novels; of "sweet," from advertising; of "stuffy," from official documents.
Gibson's book is not a text to
be dumped on students. Currently, even if the students could understand
it, they could not apply his ideas for the simple reason that we do not
teach them how to identify all the subjects and finite verbs in a text.
The most important thing about the book is Gibson's method -- making judgments
based on the analysis of real texts. Along the way, Gibson suggests a variety
of stylistic questions that teachers may want to have students discuss.
1. As an undergraduate, I was "fortunate" enough to take a course in behavioral psychology. I spent fifteen weeks training a rat, and learning about S-R conditioning. Teachers who advocate the isolated use of exercises should either take such a course, or produce proof that such exercises have a lasting effect.
2. I attended a series of workshops on
"Outcomes Assessment." The Director of the workshops repeatedly emphasized
that all decisions on outcomes, and on their assessments, have to be faculty
initiated and faculty owned. Otherwise, they will be resisted and ignored.
I note this because, in teaching grammar, we usually ignore the fact that
in almost all cases, we, as teachers, impose stylistic exercises on students.
We never give them the chance to make decisions on their own.