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Syntax, Style, and the Psycholinguistic Model

       The KISS 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 to provide.
      I am still very much interested in feedback from parents and teachers about when students are capable of understanding the model. One of my colleagues has suggested that the model is over the heads of college Freshmen, but I don't agree. The difference of opinion, I think, is based on a fundamental difference in educational philosophy. Some educators believe that students should understand everything, including all the details, of what they are taught. For these educators, the model isn't appropriate because it uses terms such as "adjective," "adverb," "subject," "finite verb," and "clause" before students have mastered the ability to recognize all of these constructions. In my opinion, these educators expect not only too much, but also the wrong things from the model.
     The fundamental importance of the model, what the students really need to grasp, are the principles it presents, not its details. Because they are already masters of the language, even first graders can understand the principle of "chunking." Having been shown what we mean by dividing a sentence into phrases ("chunks"), even first graders would divide the sentence

He went to the store with his mother.
He went     to the store     with his mother.
They would probably not divide it into
He went to     the story with       his mother.
The model simply extends this natural ability to point out that every word in any sentence (with the exception of interjections) chunks to (or modifies) another word or phrase until everything in the sentence is eventually linked to a main S/V/C pattern. This chunking, moreover, occurs both in the writer's head, and in the readers'. Thus, to fully understand the primary principle of the model, students need to be able to begin to distinguish main S/V/C patterns, i.e., clauses. In the ideal KISS curriculum, the study of clauses would begin in seventh grade. There would be no reason to introduce the model before the study of clauses, and I will be very surprised to learn that most seventh graders can't understand the basic principle of the model, especially if the model is regularly referred to as students continue to analyze sentences.
     "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.
The Importance of Correctness
Words per Main Clause 
and Dumping to Long-Term Memory
Parallel Constructions

      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.
      Style, of course, includes much more than syntax. Vocabulary, the use of imagery and metaphor, the use of details, and the logic of the content are all aspects of a writer's style. But because the KISS Approach to syntax focusses students' attention on the meaning of every word in a sentence, and because the KISS statistical approach to syntax enables students to make objective judgments about how their own style compares to that of their classmates and to that of other writers, syntax may provide an important, meaningful introduction to questions of style.