Last Revised 9/6/09
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
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"KISS" -- The Case for "Stupid"?

Marc Chagall's
(1887-1985) Russian
The Parting of the Red Sea
1966, Private collection in New York
Carol Gerten's Fine Art
     "Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, had in his office a sign reading "K.I.S.S.," which, he was glad to tell anyone, meant "Keep It Simple, Stupid." "Simple" does not have to mean simpleminded. Keeping it simple means avoiding the complexity of too many competing, confusing factors."
--David R. Williams. Sin Boldly!: Dr. Dave's Guide to 
Writing the College Paper. Cambridge: Perseus, 2000. p. 9.

       Lately a number of people have scoured this site seeking the meaning of the acronym "KISS," or they have simply written to ask what it means. Having learned that it stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid," some people have considered it to be insulting. Since it is not my intention to insult readers, the acronym requires some explanation.
     First of all, although many readers do not seem to be aware of it, the acronym has a history. I was first made aware of the acronym many years ago by my son's fifth grade teacher. It immediately stuck, since it echoes Occam's razor, the widely known philosophical principle that, in any given case, the simplest explanation -- the explanation that requires the fewest number of rules and principles -- is the best. In the 1980's, when I was developing this approach to teaching grammar, "KISS" was the obvious choice for a name. To see why, we need to look at the meaning of "stupid."
     I recently heard Whoopie Goldberg say that "stupid" is her least favorite word. Many people may agree with her. But eliminating the word will not eliminate what it stands for, and, unable to discuss what it stands for, we will, I would suggest, seriously hurt our children (who are, I want to note, much more intelligent than they are usually given credit for). Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) gives the following definitions for "stupid":

Etymology: Middle French stupide, from Latin stupidus, from stupEre to be numb, be astonished -- more at TYPE
Date: 1541
1 a : slow of mind : OBTUSE b : given to unintelligent decisions or acts: acting in an unintelligent or careless manner c : lacking intelligence or reason : BRUTISH
2 : dulled in feeling or sensation : TORPID <still stupid from the sedative>
3 : marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting : SENSELESS
4 a : lacking interest or point b : VEXATIOUS, EXASPERATING  <this stupid flashlight won't work>
No one enjoys being called "slow of mind," but note that even that first and most insulting definition refers to "unintelligent decisions" and "acting in an unintelligent or careless manner." Stupidity is, in other words, essentially a matter of choice. And choice is what the KISS Principle emphasizes -- "Keep It Simple, Stupid" implies that we have a choice between the simple and the complex (and confusing). And, like Occam's razor, it suggests that the intelligent choice is the simple one. If we fail to keep it simple, we are, in other words, stupid. As I will attempt to show, the KISS Principle is fundamental, not only to KISS Grammar, but also to other aspects of education.

A Brief History of KISS Grammar

     My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970's, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. (My degrees are all in Russian language and literature.) My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas -- "He went swimming; she did the dishes." The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. "We can't," she told me, "identify clauses."
     Clauses are one of the simplest and most fundamental grammatical constructions, but, instead of helping students learn to recognize them (and thus learn how they function), instruction in grammar has bombarded students with hundreds of terms, many of which are poorly defined, and many of which are totally useless. We have a choice here. We can focus on the basic, simple, and meaningful, or we can continue to overwhelm students with confusing terminology. If we opt for the second, are we not being stupid? I named this approach "KISS" because the primary idea behind it is to keep the required number of terms as limited in number as possible while still enabling students to discuss all the important aspects of grammar and style in any English sentence, including the most complicated.
       Note that the KISS Principle here refers to us as teachers, not to students. (I'll have more to say about its importance for students later.) And it is a constant concern. The "KISS" in the name of KISS Grammar is intended to remind me that whenever I consider adding a construction or concept to the KISS toolbox, I need to have a good reason. Otherwise, I am just adding confusion. As a simple example of this, consider "transitive," "intransitive," and "linking" verbs.  These three categories are a result of the primary focus of traditional grammar -- the placing of words into grammatical categories. But when we look at verbs in context, the only way to tell if a verb is transitive, intransitive, or linking is to examine the sentence pattern:

He grew quickly. (S / V = intransitive)
He grew tomatoes. (S / V / DO = transitive)
He grew tall. (S / V / PA = linking)
If, ultimately, we need to look at the sentence pattern, why do we need "transitive," "intransitive," and "linking"? Of course, grammarians who understand the terms claim that we need them -- but I have yet to see any good reasons. On the other hand, these terms clearly add to the confusion. A teacher on NCTE-Talk, arguing that we should teach grammar, stated that we need to teach these "transient" and "intransient" verbs.  Note what has happened here. Poor choices (I will say stupid choices.) by the supposedly educated (the teachers of teachers) has led to "dulled" "feeling or sensation" among many teachers. Most instruction in grammar involves too many terms, most of which are poorly defined. (See, for example, "Definitions of 'Clause'.")

NCTE and the Teaching of Grammar 
     -- A Case Study in Educational Stupidity

     I must admit that, when I gave it the name, I did not realize just how appropriate KISS was (and still is) to the problems in the teaching of grammar. In the Fall of 2000, I was invited by an NCTE editor to submit a TRIP book manuscript on KISS Grammar to NCTE. "TRIP" means "Theory and Research into Practice." Thus I was to review the theory and research and then to show how it supports the KISS Approach. I was already aware that, in 1985, NCTE had passed a resolution against the teaching of grammar that is not supported by theory and research, but I had not spent much time studying the research that supposedly supports that resolution. Was I surprised!
     Perhaps I missed it, but I never found a clear bibliography of the specific research that "supports" that resolution. Within the professional journals, the sources that were most often referred to are two megastudies on the state of research in English composition. These are known as The Braddock Report (1963) and The Hillocks Report (1986). When I examined them closely, I could come to only one conclusion -- their conclusions about grammar are simply stupid. Although The Braddock Report refers to other studies without specifically naming them, it focusses on a study by Roland J. Harris. In fact, Braddock's conclusion echoes that of Harris -- with one major difference. Harris concluded that the study of grammatical terminology was confusing and not helpful. (In his post-test, only one in five of his experimental sections scored better than 50% on the grammar exam.) The logical conclusion to draw from the Harris study, therefore, is that perhaps the terminology used in grammar instruction should be both clarified and simplified. Braddock, however, made the senseless conclusion that grammar should not be taught at all! (See definition #3 of "stupid.")
     The Braddock Report was bad, but The Hillocks Report was worse. Simply referring to The Braddock Report, Hillocks extends Braddock's general condemnation of  teaching grammar to include "identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagramming of sentences, or other concepts of traditional school grammar." (138) And, although Hillocks claims that his research found no support for the teaching of grammar, he gives extremely high praise to a study by Lester Faigley, claiming that the Faigly study proves that writing can be improved without instruction in grammar. But if one looks carefully at the Faigley study, one finds that the students spent a great deal of time learning to identify, manipulate, and discuss the stylistic implications of, an important, but limited number of grammatical concepts. Thus, Hillocks' conclusion is not only invalid, it is obtuse. (See definition #1 of "stupid.") [Click here for a more detailed discussion of these and other studies.]
      Most teachers have a lot to do. They do not have the time to read the research carefully, and thus, given that these studies were sanctioned by NCTE, teachers accepted them. The result, however, was a very long lasting dulled and torpid sense of grammar.  (See definition #2 of "stupid.") Note that this is not the fault of the teachers -- it is the fault of the teachers of teachers and of organizations such as NCTE. The sensible conclusion of The Braddock Report should have been that the terminology used to teach grammar in K-12 should be simplified. And The Hillocks Report nonsensically claims that there is no support for teaching grammar while simultaneously praising the effectiveness of instruction in a study in which students were taught a simpler set of grammatical concepts. The obvious conclusion of both reports, in other words, should have been KEEP IT SIMPLE! 
      That conclusion, however, was vexatiously ignored. (See definition #4 of "stupid.") As a result, it was all but impossible to publish an article about improving instruction in grammar. Manuscripts were simply returned with reviewers' comments that implied the stupidity of the writer who was not aware of "the research."  As a result, in 1989 I founded a small newsletter called Syntax in the Schools. The newsletter had no budget for advertising, so I was surprised to find it attracting articles from across the country. The reason was that the force of the NCTE resolution had closed almost all other outlets for such articles. In 1990, I arranged a conference which resulted in the formation of what is now the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). 
     But the result has been that ATEG has attracted a fair number of linguists, many of whom have backgrounds in structural, transformational, tagmemic, and other kinds of grammar. Each of these grammars has its own set of terminology, and these are what these members want to teach. Thus, instead of simplifying the grammar that is taught in the schools, ATEG is actually making it more complicated. Various members are arguing for their definitions, and some of these discussions become very complex. (To verify this, visit the ATEG list archives. February 2003, for example, has interesting threads on "Contradictory" and "Contrary" definitions.) Although many members of ATEG claim to be teaching teachers how to analyze texts, I have yet to see any of them put out, either in books or on the web, the type of analysis of students' writing, literature, and other texts that you will find here on the KISS web site. Instead what I see is a rather sterile and senseless (Definition #3) complicated discussion of grammatical terminology. When I named my approach "KISS," I was primarily thinking of the complex and often useless terminology of traditional grammar, but now the situation is getting even worse. If the "Stupid" in KISS offends these teachers of teachers, perhaps they deserve to be offended.

The Importance of the KISS Principle for Students

      As noted above, stupidity is primarily a matter of choices. In effect, "KISS" means Keep It Simple, or Choose to Be Stupid." Twenty-five years of teaching college Freshmen has shown me that a major problem for many students is that they make assignments, almost any assignment, more complicated than it actually is. 
      In my Freshman composition course, for example, I have been using an assignment in which students are expected to choose a controversial topic, find four articles about it, and write a short, six-paragraph essay in which each of the four body paragraphs is a summary of one of the articles. This is a very simple assignment, aimed at preparing the students to write the reviews of previous research that they will have to include in many papers for upper division courses. I tell the students that the paragraphs in their summaries should begin with statements such as "___________ claims that" or "According to _____." Then the paragraph simply explains the main ideas in the article. Far too often, however, what I get from students are complicated "research" papers, organized not by the articles but rather by ideas on the topic, with ideas from different sources mixed in the same paragraphs. These students have turned a relatively simple assignment into a complicated one, and, in so doing, they have missed the objectives of the simple assignment.
     The attitude of the teacher is, I should note, important in the teaching of the KISS principle. As noted above, I believe that students are much brighter than we usually give them credit for, and I have to wonder if, perhaps, those teachers who dislike the KISS principle do so because they believe that either they or their students really are stupid (per definition #1). I even go so far as to tell students to KEEP IT SIMPLE BECAUSE THEIR INSTRUCTOR [That's primarily me.] IS STUPID. Not only do I really believe that, but I also suggest that it may apply to all instructors. What I have in mind here is the second definition, "dulled in feeling or sensation."
      Instructors regularly take home anywhere from a dozen to a hundred student essays, often on the same assignment. Simply reading that many papers on the same topic is enough to dull one's sensations. And instructors do have personal lives -- they cannot spend the entire weekend reading one paper, taking a short break, and then starting another. Thus they (we) often plow through sets of papers, and, as many instructors in different fields have also told me, we are often looking for very specific things. The specifics, of course, vary, but in most papers the most important things are the thesis (main idea of the paper) and the topic sentences.
       English teachers have a variety of opinions on introductions, and even on the location of a thesis, but as I suggest to my students, instructors in other areas generally expect the thesis of a paper to be at the end of the introduction. That is the "simple," standard place for it. Some students, however, like to get fancy and put the thesis in the very first sentence of a paper. That is a stupid choice because an instructor is liable to miss it -- and thus the entire point of the paper. Not only might the instructor be dulled from the sheer number of papers, both read and to be read, but most instructors are probably not going to be expecting that thesis in the first sentence. 
     In fact, while reading through the first paragraph of the paper, they may still be thinking about the validity of the grade that was just put on the previous paper. I often do that, and if I get two or three sentences into a paper and still find myself thinking about the grade on the previous paper, I put the paper I am reading down and go back to the previous paper. But sometimes I decide that that previous grade was just, and then I simply keep on reading. If I missed the thesis of this paper because it was in the first sentence, whose fault it that?
     I might note here that in a small survey of faculty members from across the curriculum, the most frequently cited weakness of students was that the students do not follow simple directions. Hmmmm. In my own experience, students' failure to follow directions often has the result of making their task more complicated. In my Introduction to Literature course, students write a paper in which they are expected to use three literary concepts (symbolism, setting, etc.) to support their view of the theme of a story. Instead of simply using the three concepts that they best understand, far too many students discuss four, five, or even six concepts. The same happens in my Freshman Composition course. In one paper, students are expected to find an editorial and discuss three logical fallacies in it. (Note that in this assignment, the requirement of three shows up in the grading sheets for thesis and for details.) Logical fallacies are not easy concepts, but some students insist on making the assignment more complex than it is -- instead of discussing just three fallacies, they try to explain four or five. Examples of students making assignments more complicated than they are could go on at length. It is, in other words, another context in which the KISS principle is relevant and very important for some students.

Alternative Meanings

      Some people who like the KISS Approach but who still do not want to tell students that the acronym originates from the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle have offered alternative meanings. My least favorite of these is "Keep It Simple, Silly." Personally, I consider this interpretation to be more demeaning than "Stupid" might be. In effect, it treats students as if they are all little kiddies, incapable of being competent, and thus, incapable of making stupid choices. In addition, it demeans the subject matter. 
      Another suggestion is "Keep It Super Simple." My problem with this is that it may be misleading. For people who are already familiar with grammatical and linguistic terminology, KISS may be not only super simple, but also overly simplistic. Experience has taught me, however, that people who are not familiar with grammatical concepts will initially find KISS to be confusing. Many people, for example, expect instructional material on grammar to teach them the "right" answer -- even the possibility of alternative explanations confuses them. Add to that the fact that KISS almost immediately dives into the analysis of randomly selected texts. The sentences in many of these texts are not the super simple sentences that are found in most grammar textbooks. And then there is the fact that the workbooks offer a variety of ways and types of exercises to reach the required and desired objectives. Many people will find this confusing, so calling the approach "Keep It Super Simple" may add to their frustration.
     The suggestion for an alternative that I like the best is "Keep It Simple for Style." The implication here seems to be to keep the grammar itself (the terminology and constructions) simple so that students can actually get to effectively applying it to the style of their own writing. And that is what the KISS Approach is designed to do. The name "KISS" originated from the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle, but I have no trouble with considering "KISS" to mean "Keep It Simple for Style," or perhaps even "Keep It Simple and Smart." Of course, if you are really smart, you don't object to the word "stupid."