The Printable KISS Workbooks

Notes for Teachers:
The Branching of Adverbial Prepositional Phrases

     With these exercises, we are in the subjective area of style. One problem of many weak writers is that they begin almost every sentence with the simple subject and verb. Some teachers attempt to get students to vary their sentences by opening with a prepositional phrase. Typically, the problem for the students is that they do not know what prepositional phrases are. In the KISS Approach, of course, students have learned to identify prepositional phrases. As a result, these exercises on variety should be much more successful.
     Like many things in life, this question can be either very simple or extremely complex. How complex you want to make it is up to you and your students. You can, for example, ask students to indicate just the type of branching in each of the indicated phrases in each sentence, or you can have students subjectively rate the "normality" of the branching of each phrase, and then have a class discuss this aspect of branching for emphasis.
     The instructional material for students suggests that many things affect branching. Asking students to rate and discuss the types of branching may lead the students to find some of these causes. (It would probably be possible, given lots of time, to catalog a list of reasons for different branching. But it is probably better to have students explore the question for themselves.) 

     In Level 1.5 on the KISS web site, you can find an analysis of the 35 adverbial phrases in Flora J. Cooke's version of "Philemon and Baucis." Twenty-seven of the phrases branch to the right; seven, to the left, and one is mid-branching. This analysis takes up a lot of space, so I have decided not to include it in the printable books. That analysis, time-consuming as it was, misses some obvious cases in which, for example, left-branching is normal:

For example, he wrote an excellent paper about fishing. [10]
In this sentence, mid-branching would also be almost normal:
He, for example, wrote an excellent paper about fishing. [10]
Right-branching is probably less effective in this sentence:
He wrote an excellent paper about fishing, for example. [5]
Phrases such as "for example," or "in other words," indicate the purpose of what follows, and many writers use these phrases as transitions near the beginning of the sentence.

     Mid-branching phrases are of particular interest for two reasons. First, be careful about pushing weak writers to use mid-branching. Many weak writers, especially young ones, are still developing the connection between subject and verb. Words that separate the two may be more confusing than helpful.
     Second, have older, more experienced writers seriously consider the effects of heavy mid-branching. Both Joseph Williams and Richard Lanham, two well-respected writers on style, suggest that even experienced writers should not separate subjects from their verbs by inserting long mid-branching modifiers.

     Although it pertains more to subordinate clauses than it does to phrases, you may want to have your students discuss another question. Francis Christensen, a well-known writer about teaching grammar, advocated sentence-combining exercises that teach students to make their sentences longer and more complex by right-branching. His argument was basically that right-branching is the norm. But in Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy, Walker Gibson suggested that left-branching implies a more organized mind. His argument is that in order to left branch, the writer has to already have in mind what the branch is going to branch from. In other words, Gibson suggested that right-branching can simply result from the writer's tacking one idea after another.
      Even though the following exercises focus on prepositional phrases (and students have not yet even begun to study clauses), you may find this to be an interesting question for your students. Consider, for example, the following sentence from "The Sheep and the Pig":

One day a shepherd discovered a fat Pig in the meadow where his Sheep were pastured.
Even though your students have not studied clauses, when they attempt to left-branch "in the meadow," some students will probably move "where his Sheep were pastured" with it:
One day, in the meadow where his Sheep were pastured, a shepherd discovered a fat Pig.
Gibson's argument is that one can easily write "One day a shepherd discovered a fat Pig," and only then, before putting down the period, think about adding "in the meadow where his Sheep were pastured." But one really can't write "One day, in a meadow where his sheep were pastured" without already knowing what "in a meadow" will modify. Thus one must be able to hold the whole sentence in mind as one begins to write it.
     Note that the KISS position on this is that Gibson has an interesting idea, an idea that, in the KISS Approach, students can explore and take their own positions on. (Christensen's idea has always bothered me because he basically forces a style on students without students even being able to recognize subordinate clauses or consider options.)
     As a final question, consider the mid-branching version of this sentence:
One day a shepherd, in the meadow where his Sheep were pastured, discovered a fat Pig.
Is the mid-branching too long? At this point, all I can say is that it depends on the intended readers. There is a fair amount of evidence that young readers will have trouble connecting the subject to the verb. On the other end, most experienced readers will have no trouble with it. Unfortunately, because of the confusion over grammatical terminology, little research has been done on questions like this. But the questions are important because, as noted above, if we push weak writers into writing sentences like this, we may just confuse them. Don't fool with Mother Nature.